What if the messiah comes, but he doesn’t want to stick around? This question underlies a completely engrossing, brilliantly told detective noir story set in an alternative reality Jewish homeland in Alaska. As a detective story, it’s well done, with a mystery that leads to numerous other crimes and conspiracies, all of which seem plausible in the context of a corrupted, criminal underworld at the edge of the world and the end of time.
The situation is a murder in a Jewish homeland imposed on a piece of the world that no-one wants except the Tlingit people living there (a nice parallel for the State of Israel in Palestine). The setting, with its ever-present fog, rain, snow and cold, hemmed in by forests and water, has the same foreboding character that Raymond Chandler would call up if his Los Angeles were 1,500 miles farther north. Also like Chandler, Chabon uses a colourful, hard-boiled style to evoke a tough, cynical and bleak view of the world. His language brings in yiddish slang and similes that fit naturally in the world he has created. It doesn’t feel like a forced pastiche of Chandler to find out that a sholem is slang for a gun (or “peacemaker” in western American slang); or that a latke is a street cop (or “flatfoot”). An artful homage, I would say.
Another departure from Chandler, or at least the Chandler novels I’ve read, is that the past of the protagonist Landsman is not hidden. It is revealed slowly, but Chabon does explain how he came to his bleak outlook and self-destructive life. And while the story centres on male protagonists, the women in the story are strong capable individuals who contribute to the plot and the characters. Ultimately, Landsman finds that salvation is not in the messiah, but in his relationship to the woman he loves.
The messiah figure is an interesting one, too. He has a genuine gift for bringing contentment into people’s lives, but he can’t bring the same satisfaction into his own life. The contradictions with his ultra-orthodox sect make him miserable and he wants out. His mother wants to protect him, but he flees before she can help him, if that’s even possible in her world. A self-sacrificing messiah this is not, which makes an interesting reflection on the Christian messiah.
From the start, though, I wondered what the title referred to, and about page 230, we find that the Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a fake: after losing his badge, Landsman uses a union card to pretend to be an active policeman. So I take it that the Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a cover for looking at something else. What Michael Chabon is really looking at seems to be a multi-layered view of Jewish-American and Israeli politics, society and personal relations.
A key theme in the novel is the expiration of the lease on the Jewish homeland in Alaska, which the Americans won’t renew it, leaving the few million Jewish settlers either searching for a new homeland or in a suspended animation – the existential challenge of Israel and the renewed diaspora of unwelcome Jewish people.
To resolve the challenge, a group of Zionists finds a messiah and concocts a scheme to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem and return to Israel. Their willingness to stop at nothing, including genocide, and with the probably ignorant support of wealthy American Jewish sponsors, leads to a scheme that would stir the imagination of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists. Chabon keeps the story from descending to such fantasies, mainly by making the imagined setting so much a part of the novel that the storyline cannot be separated from the city of Sitka and its seedy inhabitants. That and the fundamentalist Christian allies who back the plot.
Chabon uses the noir genre conventions to explore literature and society in complex ways, as Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay used comic book conventions to explore twentieth century Jewish life. This is a literary novel that is entertaining and a great read.