May 31, 2007

Chabon's Jewish/Tlingit novel

Meshuga Alaska[I]f Gentlemen disappoints, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, in which the enduring tropes of the private-eye novel and the science-fiction parallel-universe fantasy are mixed and matched, is triumphant, as if Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick had smoked a joint with I.B. Singer. In the alternative twentieth century conceived by Chabon, Russia has gone through three republics without a revolution. The Holocaust is called, instead, the Destruction. An atom bomb fell on Berlin in 1946. In 1948, Jews in the Holy Land were defeated and savaged by Arabs, so there is no Israel. Enticed by an American settlement act that promised them sixty years of sanctuary before their federal district reverted to Alaska, thousands of Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived by a World War I troop transport at a swamp near the old Russian colony of Sitka, where they were numbered, inoculated, deloused, and tagged like migrant birds, only to discover 50,000 Tlingit Indians already in possession of most of the flat and usable land. After which, nonetheless, crews of young Jewesses in blue head scarves went immediately to work, "singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx." Down south, the American first lady is Marilyn Monroe Kennedy, the Cuban war has not gone well, and the Jews of Sitka are called "the Frozen Chosen."

Jewish Sitka, population 3.2 million, a couple of months shy of the 2008 "Reversion," is one of the novel's finest characters, an imaginary city, as palpable as Tel Aviv, as ghostly as Warsaw, as liverish as Buenos Aires, with newspapers, cigarettes, tunnels, and secrets —everything but public transportation. We visit the Hotel Zamenhof on Max Nordau Street for dead bodies, the Hotel Einstein on Adler for nostalgia, the Ringelblum Avenue Baths for conspiracy, Bronfman University for a joke, the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria for pickled crab apple and perhaps a kreplach shaped like the head of Maimonides, and Goldblatt's Dairy Restaurant to remember a Jewish massacre of Tlingits. We meet momzers, shtarkers, schlossers, grifters, boundary mavens, patzer ex-cons, bottom-rung bet runners like Penguin Simkowitz, mouse-eyed shtinkers like Zigmund Landau ("the Heifetz of Informers"), ultra-Orthodox black-hat wiseguys like the Verbover Hasidim, in charge of gun-running, money-laundering, cigarette smuggling, policy racketeering, and Third Temple fantasizing, and Landsman's partner in crime-stopping, Berko Shemets, a half-Tlingit whose Indian line goes all the way back to the creation-mythic Raven but who is, at this time in this place, an observant Jew "for his own reasons": "He is a minotaur, and the world of Jews is his labyrinth."

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