The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon
It is advice for writers of mystery-thriller-detective genre fiction that they should put a dead body on the first page of a novel. Michael Chabon isn't what you think of when you think of a typical genre-fiction writer -- but he's most certainly playing with genres in his considered-literary fiction. (I'm no expert in genre theory, but I know that pinning down any genre -- romance, mystery, literary, whatever -- is difficult at best. It's like answering the question: What is a sport? At first it seems easy. You know, it's athletic, it's a competition. Like basketball. But how athletic do golfers have to be? Isn't golf a sport? Sure, golf requires hand-eye coordination ... but so does being a contestant on Project Runway or Top Chef. What about NASCAR drivers? Sure, auto racing requires endurance and quick thinking ... but so does running for president, right?
We all have our opinions about what is or isn't a sport. Baseball is, poker isn't. Football is, spelling bees aren't. And so on. But doesn't poker, for instance, occupy the same cultural spot as a sport? It's shown on ESPN, it's a competition, it appeals to largely the same segment of the American population, etc. So how useful is it to announce with great authority that poker isn't a sport? How much value does the label really have? Is it intended to include or exclude? And yet labels -- genres -- do mean something, do have practical real-life value. The library has a whole section devoted to mystery novels, another devoted to romance novels. Some people know they like mystery novels, others know they like romances. It is useful to them to have their favorite type of books grouped together. Right? And it is useful for an author, as well, to have genre conventions to follow -- or to intentionally subvert. Is it not in those choices that art lives? Which conventions do you follow, which do you stand on their heads?)
I read somewhere that Chabon has said he wants to erase genre boundaries; I'm paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect that he would like a library where Jennifer Crusie and Raymond Carver sat in the same shelf with Charles Dickens and Orson Scott Card. I haven't read everything Chabon has written, but I've read enough about his books to know he's bouncing from genre to genre. And The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a detective story in the tradition of L.A. noir fiction, although its hero, world-weary homicide cop Meyer Landsman, reminds me of no one so much as Robert Wilson's mournful detective Javier Falcon. This book also offers an alternative history, a genre unto itself, although one about which I know essentially nothing; it takes place in modern-day Sitka, Alaska, 60 years after Alaska became the home for displaced Jewish settlers after World War II.
The world Chabon has crafted here is stunning in its detail and realism. The depth of this alternative Alaska is entirely believable, and from a craftsman point of view, it's pretty impressive how much work Chabon does to render this setting and the characters who inhabit it. That said, it's honestly a good thing there's a dead body on the first page. The level of detail and background is so great, and there's so much backstory for Chabon to fill in that without the mystery to pull the reader along, it would be easy to get bogged down in all the description. I have this notion that I once read about Tolstoy that the first however many pages require the reader to do a large percentage of the work, but that the payoff comes in the rest of the novel. I could be making this up; it's possible no one's ever said any such thing about Tolstoy. But if they haven't, they very well could say such a thing about The Yiddish Policemen's Union. The work of creating an alternative urban Jewish Alaska from scratch, complete with its secret societies and ghettos and characters is imposing. Plus, Chabon weaves in Yiddish words and phrases that can slow the reader who, like me, is not exactly from the shtetl. But the deeper you get in, the more you appreciate what you're reading, and then the plot begins to pick up speed, and you're reading for forward momentum as much as for the writing and the setting and the history.
I have to say, too, that the writing in this novel is simply lovely. Really, really fine craftsmanship. Open the book to almost any page, and you'll see something like this:
Landsman uncaps the bottle of vodka and takes a long stiff pull. It burns like a compound of solvent and lye. Several inches remain in the bottle when he is through, but Landsman himself is filled top to bottom with nothing but the burn of remorse. All the old parallels it once pleased him to draw between the guitarist and himself are turned against him. After a brief but vigorous debate, Landsman decides not to throw the bottle in the trash, where it will be of no use to anyone. He transfers it to the snug hip pocket of his own decline. He drags the musician out of the stall and carefully dries his right hand. Last he takes the piss he came in here to take. The music of Landsman's urine against the porcelain and water lures the musician into opening his eyes.
The lyricism and the verging-on-over-the-top introspection are grounded with ferocity by the earthly, the profane, the physical. It is, like this book, a masterful achievement.