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The Evasionist

By (June 1, 2007) One Comment

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

By Michael Chabon

In Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an exiled Jewish community, given temporary and rapidly expiring asylum in a remote settlement in Alaska, pins its wildest hopes on a young man believed to be the messiah. It’s a premise Chabon knows something about. He began his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, as a 21-year-old graduate at the University of California, Irvine. The book was his master’s thesis. Without his knowing it, a professor sent the manuscript to an agent, who promptly steered it toward publication. When Chabon was 24 it hit the bestseller list.The book world is by and large a frustrated and undernourished people, primed by steady disappointment and desperately keen to anoint greatness on any young creature who shows a spark of potential. Fast upon his graduation, Chabon found himself heralded by literary prophets as a novelist who would one day—and one day soon—produce masterpieces.  

It’s true that it is a sacrosanct prerogative of prophets to fix upon charlatans—but The Myseries of Pittsburgh is the genuine article, a contemporary classic whose delights have not paled and whose depth of feeling has not shallowed since its appearance in 1988.

The novel is made of parallel storylines: the first is the agonized ménage a trois among the winsome young hero Art Bechstein, his girlfriend Phlox, and his gay friend Arthur; the second centers on Art’s middleman entanglement between his father, an urbane white-collar gangster named Joe “The Egg,” and his friend Cleveland, an aspiring perp. Not the least of the auspicious aspects of this novel is the surehanded control with which Chabon develops these two far-removed narratives and ultimately unites them.

But good narrative structure is invisible. What instead stands out and classifies the book in a distinct genus from most coming-of-age novels is the wonderfully observant exploration into the catacombs of sexual identity. The novel is packed with quotable passages on this score; for instance, one of Arthur’s early advances prompts from Art this reflection:

There had been a time in high school, see, when I wrestled with the possibility that I might be gay, a torturous six-month culmination of years of unpopularity and girllessness. At night I lay in bed and coolly informed myself that I was gay and that I’d better get used to it. The locker room became a place of torment, full of exposed male genitalia that seemed to taunt me with my failure to avoid glancing at them, for a fraction of a second that might have seemed accidental but was, I realized, a bitter symptom of my perversion….

The crisis of self-esteem had been abruptly dispelled by the advent of Julie Lefkowitz, followed swiftly by her sister Robin, and then Sharon Horne and little Rose Fagan and Jennifer Schaeffer; but I never forgot my period of profound sexual doubt. Once in a while I would meet an enthralling man who shook, dimly but perceptibly, the foundations laid by Julie Lefkowitz, and I
would wonder, just for a moment, by what whim of fate I had decided that I was not a homosexual.

This sort of wondering, ambiguous psyche-sounding is better and truer than the wispy theories propounded in Women in Love or the many other novels that address sexual identity with philosophy instead of experience. The eventual love scene between Art and Arthur sustains the realism of contradictory sensations:

We did it very rapidly, in the Weatherwoman’s bed, passing from toothed kisses through each backward and alien, but familiar, station on the old road to intercourse, which loomed there always before me, black and brutal and smiling, more alien, more backward, and more familiar than anything else.

What both passages also begin to convey is Chabon’s effortless sense of humor; nearly every page of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has an image or, especially, a turn of phrase to make the reader smile. Comedy, as George Meredith put it, permits romance while acting as a birch-rod against sentimentality. It is the key to Chabon’s best writing. The affectionate, ribbing humor for which he has such a knack gives him entrance into darker, more painful themes, while protecting against the tendency to wallow in those themes. Funny and moving, boyish and wise, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has not lost its freshness with age. Readers can hardly be blamed for having believed that Redemption was nigh.

* * *

“Twenty-two, I was twenty-two!” Chabon exclaimed in an essay about the creation of his debut, to underscore the naiveté and uncanniness that somehow resulted in a superb success, and perhaps to remove himself from his involvement in it. Those overburdened by expectations, if they possess Chabon’s modesty and work ethic, will often gain some relief from the responsibilities of their brilliance by invoking the mystical influence of happenstance. The young would-be messiah in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union flees his families, takes on a pseudonym, hides away in a flophouse, and escapes his conscience with heroin and chess. Chabon, the would-be author of masterpieces, thankfully never stopped writing, but the pressure to exceed himself, combined with the fawning attention of critics and interviewers, seems to have distorted the natural arc of his progression and led to a series of odd, uncertain, and unsatisfactory novels.

The pressure led first to the nightmare experience of writing a failed novel. Called Fountain City and based on the ominously conceptual premise of a man trying to build the perfect baseball stadium, it had to be aborted after 1,500 pages. This is the waking terror of every writer, and perhaps shouldn’t be underestimated in its contribution to the strange disguises that Chabon’s prose would shortly assume.

To purge the ignominy of Fountain City, Chabon wrote Wonder Boys, a meandering, plotless novel about a writer who is unable to finish a long, meandering, plotless novel. Wonder Boys is a benignly misbegotten piece of jeu d’esprit that never quite succeeds in shining because of a faulty connection in its wiring: allegedly narrated by a fat, aging, philandering pothead, the novels instead adopts the voice of a young, brainy glee club member. The voice, in short, sounds exactly like Art Bechstein’s, but in this go around his adventures are silly and inconsequential.

A struggling pattern of cause and effect begins to take shape. Needing to rebound from a failure, Chabon fell back on a watered-down version of a voice he had already perfected. Needing to rebound from a book he could have written in his sleep, Chabon then wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a thick, scrupulously researched historical novel that spans 15 years and, in navigating the lives of two early-era comic book creators, attempts to reckon with some of the weightiest subjects of the 20th century, World War II and the fate of Jews during Nazism.

Nearly every book of Chabon’s has sizable servings of wit and sensitivity. His recurring interests are winning in and of themselves: perhaps better than any other current writer, he understands that friendships are kinds of love affairs; his sympathies are ever with the underdogs, usually young gay men; he has the amiable—somewhat canine—habit of describing his characters by their mélange of odors; somewhere along the line in every novel his male heroes cry in public; one of his favorite words is “passionately.”

The 640 pages of Kavalier & Clay have all of these charms and a number of fine set pieces as well. Joe Kavalier’s apprenticeship under a kind, laconic escape artist is tenderly depicted. And a scene in which Sam Clay brings an actor named Tracy Bacon home to meet his mother is one of the best scenes Chabon has written anywhere. In it, Sam is still somewhat unaware that he is showing off not just a friend but a boyfriend, but his mother and the man both know it, and the subtle, fluent execution of such a delicate scenario is a pleasure to behold.

But I do not at all agree with the common line that Kavalier & Clay is Chabon’s best book, or even that it is a good book. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was small, but it was piercingly direct; Kavalier & Clay attains breadth, but at the loss of focus. Larger in scope, it is smaller—and shallower—in spirit.

Breadth is achieved by research, and Chabon’s research lies in undigested chunks throughout this novel, giving it a logy, plodding pace and impeding the realistic development of his characters. (His research is also detailed in his concluding Author’s Note. As I mentioned in March, Norman Mailer caught flak for including a bibliography at the end of his novel The Castle in the Forest; but there’s not a peep when Chabon does the same, because it’s the custom to kick dirt on failed saviors while coddling those still in formation.) On multiple occasions, Chabon interrupts a conservation—sometimes in mid-motion—to deliver pages of historical background that would better belong in a magazine feature or an encyclopedia.

For example, when Rosa Luxembourg Saks first appears we are given a glimpse or her running naked out of a bedroom. Rosa is the novel’s heroine and Chabon wants her introduction to auger her vibrant personality and the profound effect she’ll have on Joe and Sam. But moments after Rosa has flashed past, and Joe, Sam, and a comic book artist named Julie are furtively discussing her, we get this:

“She was naked.”

“Quite naked.”

“I’ll bet you couldn’t draw it.” Julie pulled off his sweater. It was the color of Wheatena and underneath it he wore another, identical sweater. Julie was always complaining that he felt cold, even in warm weather; in the wintertime he went around swelled to twice his normal bulk. Over the years, his mother, based only on knowledge gleaned from the pages of the Yiddish newspapers, had diagnosed him with several acute and chronic illnesses. Every morning she obliged him to swallow a variety of pills and tablets, eat a raw onion, and take a teaspoon each of Castoria and vitamin tonic….

…And so on, for another quarter of a page, until Joe is finally permitted to respond. Julie is a nonentity who hardly appears again, but he is made to intrude upon—and kibosh—an important conversation because Chabon could not resist demonstrating that he’d learned what Wheatena and Castoria were. Time and again this happens, crucial scenes killed of their momentum by massive stumbling-blocks of exposition.

So invested is Chabon in diagramming the world he’s read about in Great History of Comic Books and The World Almanac Book of Facts for 1941 that he delves only superficially into his characters. What exactly is the good of inserting Al Smith and Orson Welles into a novel if they say or do nothing of interest? (The inert characterization of Smith, one of the most spontaneously eloquent politicians in American history, is particularly criminal.) The novel’s foil, a Nazi-sympathizer named Carl Ebling, is an anemic parody of a comic book villain. Rosa, a “foulmouthed flower of bohemia” who curses by my count twice, is a blandly idealized Village artiste as flat as the wallflower she’s become by the novel’s end. Sam Clay is our resident confused homosexual, but with a few exceptions his predicament is now stylized and stereotypical. The dizzy intensity of the love scene in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has been excerpted; Sam’s love scene with Tracy Bacon takes place in the Empire State Building during a lightning storm, and it’s clear that cinematic spectacle has surpassed emotional insight on Chabon’s list of priorities.

Joe Kavalier, who escaped the Nazis but is helpless to save his family, is the novel’s moral and psychological polestar. He is driven, we are told, by “the desire for revenge, for a final expiation of guilt and responsibility, that had been the sole animator of Joe’s existence since the night of December 6, 1941.” As a character study, this is facile and surely wrong: for none of the many, many immigrants in New York who left family behind to die in Eastern Europe was revenge against Germans the sole animating force. Chabon is intentionally—and with harmful contrivance—paralleling Joe’s motives to those of superheroes; but the truth is that Batman has more complexity than Joe Kavalier.

With its costume-deep characters defined by their sole animating desires, like superheroes defined by their powers (except, as comic book readers will exclaim, superheroes aren’t only defined by their powers), this wan picaresque can only taper off into sentimentality. Sentimentality also beclouds Chabon’s succeeding books, the verbose young adult novel Summerland and a portentous Sherlock Holmes pastiche called The Final Solution. Because the emphasis on these books is on genre imitation, and because Chabon’s once limpid prose style is here spoiled by mimicry and caricature, these books become increasingly superficial, with fewer and fewer moments of genuine feeling, and with virtually no sentences that are beautiful or true. As the years passed the possibility loomed larger that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a chance anomaly from a writer who was indeed, as Chabon modestly suggested, otherwise a diligent and intelligent mediocrity.

* * *

Fortunately, by about the second page of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, any fears that Chabon’s gifts had been exaggerated are eradicated, and the particular joy that results from proximity to radioactive talent comes upon the reader. This is Chabon’s best novel since his debut and shares with that book its spry, continuous action, its endlessly pithy dialogue, and its sweetly mordant sense of humor.

I was rewarded with my first honk of laughter on page three, when Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective who has just been awoken in his trashy hotel room to go look at a murder victim, sarcastically tells the proprietor that he works for the love of it:

“It’s the same for me,” the night manager says. “With being a night manager of a crap-ass hotel.”

From here on the book induces regular laughter as though doing so were a simple matter of routine.

The murder victim is Mendel Shpilman, a faith-healing prodigy believed by ultraorthodox Jews to be the messiah, who is shot in front of a mysteriously unfinished chess game. Mendel is Chabon’s means of digressing on the intimate topic of the troubles faced by wunderkinds. If Chabon runs a little bit long on this theme—the retrospection into Mendel’s life puts a frustrating halt to the drama—he paints the brilliant savior with complementary layers of light and dark.

Even more curious is Chabon’s decision to set his novel in the invented city of Sitka, a reservation in Alaska that, in the revisionist history lightly outlined, the United States offered in the 1940s to Jews who had been defeated by Arabs in their effort to settle Palestine. Sitka—a busy, cramped, decaying city with more than a passing resemblance to an Eastern European shtetl or Isaac Babel’s gangland Odessa—is a whimsical embellishment that brings out the best in its author. In short order a wonderfully diverse, entirely convincing metropolis is erected—convincing because Chabon does not expend huge explanatory passages trying to convince us of its reality, as he did for 1940s New York in Kavalier & Clay. Sitka and its turbulent history of border violence are instead slyly filled in detail by detail over the course of Meyer Landsman’s perambulatory investigation.

And perhaps it’s only in a made-up world—a meta-world, a literary trope brought to fully animate life—that Meyer Landsman could exist, because Landsman is one hundred percent literary in origin. He is, from conception to delivery, a Jewish Philip Marlowe, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a Raymond Chandler crime novel transplanted from Los Angeles to an imaginary Jewish homeland.

The relocation is consummately, brilliantly effected, nowhere moreso than in the Yiddishizing of Marlowe’s hardboiled slang: detectives are shammeses (only the Jews among you will catch this pun), cops are nozzes, petty crooks are latkes, chumps are buffaloes, sidearm weapons are sholems, and everyone is a yid, as in “What’s up, yid?” a greeting that cannot ever stop being funny. Addled Jews in low-rent hotels pine for the messiah the way that washed up B-movie actresses yearn for fame. Like big studio film producers or high-end pornographers, Orthodox tzaddiks—shielded by their black-hatted heavies—manipulate Sitka with near-divine impunity. In their untouchable neighborhoods, “Torah bachelors loiter, Scripture grifters, unmatchable luftmensches and garden-variety hoodlums,” all of whom give Landsman the “Bessarabian fish-eye.” Bina, Landsman’s ex-wife and newly-promoted boss, is our tough-talking but vulnerable moll. The most perfect fusion of Ashkenazi Judaism and LA-noir is that when Mendel Shpilman ties off his arm to shoot junk, he uses phylactery straps.

Chabon’s prose, too, conjures the aphoristic verve for which Chandler is justly beloved:

[Landsman] is off duty today, but duty means nothing, today means nothing, nothing means anything but a clean suit, three fresh Broadways, the wobble of the hangover just behind his eyes, the murmur of the brush against the whiskey-brown felt of his hat. And, all right, maybe a trace in his hotel room of the smell of Bina, of the sour collar of her shirt, her verbena soap, the marjoram smell of her armpit. He rides down in the elevator feeling as if he has stepped out from under the onrushing shadow of a plummeting piano, some kind of jazzy clangor in his ear. The knot of his gold-and-green rep necktie presses its thumb against his larynx like a scruple pressing against a guilty conscience, a reminder that he is alive.

(Two more things are notable here: 1) because our hard-drinking dick is a Jew, it’s essential that he’s haunted by guilt, and 2) notwithstanding the hardboiled tone, Chabon’s irrepressible boyishness filters in a lavender tint on even the bleakest backgrounds.)

The crime story of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, fun as it often is, is really not more than an elaborate and extended impersonation. But through it, in its imaginary, fable-like city, Chabon is writing about what it is to be a Jew. I’m hard-pressed to name anyone who has evoked the totality of the Jewish experience with such perception and humor since Joseph Heller. Cohabiting Sitka are atheist Jews, mixed-blood pariahs, sell-out parvenus, and grim, industrious zealots. Segregated as they might be, they all share the predisposed expectation of tragedy that’s been bred in the bone from two thousand years of persecution and from the race’s implacable, inextinguishable reverence of reason; and they also share the crazy hope that some day something that usurps reason is going to come along and save them. Chabon captures both the nihilism and the hope—and most of all, he gets the wry, patient, somehow fortifying backbone of irony that has evolved from the duality.

* * *

But even if the crime story is only a self-indulgent vehicle, it would have been nice if Chabon had carried it out to a suspenseful conclusion. On the contrary, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union goes to hash in its final 150 pages, and the remarkable way it does so offers a telling indication of how Chabon really feels about the genres in whose shallows he’s spent the last years splashing around.

The some extent, the ambling, arbitrary conclusion of the novel is in keeping with a faithful mimesis of Chandler, whose plots famously tend to make no sense. Less justifiable is the conspiracy that Landsman penetrates, in which a fanatic Orthodox sect plans to hurry along the advent of the messiah by blowing up the Dome of the Rock and precipitating World War III. With this sketchy and half-cocked effort to give his book a wider political relevance, Chabon traduces the imaginary universe he had so persuasively constructed. All suspension of disbelief crashes down; it becomes manifestly clear that Chabon doesn’t trust either the validity or the potential of his own fiction.

Here precisely is the juxtaposition that makes Chabon’s later books, even appealing books such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so frustrating: on one hand he wants to dabble with genres that have entertained him throughout his reading life. So he writes a tome about magic and escapism and close shaves and derring-do in which the characters have the glossy single-mindedness of comic book heroes. So he turns out a Sherlock Holmes mystery that borrows the gray, sinister atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles. So he riffs Raymond Chandler.

But on the other hand, Chabon is afraid that he’ll be seen as slumming into narrow and frivolous forms, that these genres are in fact beneath him, so he constantly alludes to subjects of dead seriousness: World War II, the Holocaust, terrorism in the Middle East.

The result is that he botches the genre material—he belabors his adventures and muddles his mysteries—and leaves the serious stuff egregiously thin and unconfronted. In time, all the games, the mimicry, the pastiches (with a chess sub-story purloined from Nabokov, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is actually a pastiche of pastiches) begin to look like evasions, like Mendel Shpilman hiding under an alias and wiling his time with a board game. It’s far easier to cook up the premise for a holy war from some obscure messianic tract than to actually write about holy war. In The Final Solution the Holocaust is attenuated to a puzzle of numbers. In Kavalier & Clay, with the greatest war in the history of humankind spread before him, Chabon sends a vengeful, crusading Joe Kavalier to…Antarctica.

Obviously, gravity can’t be achieved by cheap allusions to grave events. So what exactly is Chabon hoping to do? The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has much to recommend to it, but does Chabon intend to keep writing crime novels? Does he want to be known as a crime novelist? You sense that he (and his readers) would recoil at the notion, but Chabon surely knows that had Arthur Conan Doyle written only A Study in Scarlet, and had Raymond Chandler put down his pen after The Big Sleep, their respective contributions to literature would have been negligible. Greatness in genre work is usually cumulative; in stooping to conquer, sometime dabblers are prone to condescend.

In numerous essays and interviews, Chabon has argued (or else diplomatically insinuated) that mainstream literature is static and uneventful, suffering from malaise. His aversion seems to be not merely to writer’s workshop-bred conformity, but to the very milieu of present-day suburbia. It’s an attitude mirrored by other American writers, most notably by Arthur Phillips, whose debut Prague is a fantastically smart roman a clef, and who has since written two potboiling period pieces. And while it may be understandable, this urge to run away from home (although do we really want to turn our back on middle-class Americana? Are we quite sure it doesn’t contain the material for an epic?), it does not logically follow that a remedy to the ills of contemporary literature is to be found in pastiches and the pulps. If modern novels with serious pretensions tend to be boring, shouldn’t the response be to write one such novel that isn’t boring? The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has not a boring page in it; now Chabon has more experience, more wisdom: the mind boggles at what he might give us if he set his sights on something great.

It won’t be his next book, sadly, which is yet more ephemera. Gentlemen of the Road is a pulp adventure being serialized in The New York Times, for which Chabon has intentionally made the prose, in his words, “purple” and “somewhat overwritten,” for all the world as though these things weren’t synonymous with “bad” (purple prose is one of the bugbears of Kavalier & Clay).

So the faithful will have to wait a little longer. We can be encouraged by The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a fun but in the long run forgettable novel that mainly whets the appetite for something more substantial. The faithful will keep reading, hope against hope, because that is what the faithful do. And because, oy, gotenyu! what a book it could be.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.