A Texas Jewboy (Almost) Braves Chabon's Alaskan Wild

By Friedman, Kinky | Moment, August-September 2007 | Go to article overview

A Texas Jewboy (Almost) Braves Chabon's Alaskan Wild


Friedman, Kinky, Moment


As Meyer Landsman, Michael Chabon's detective in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, observes early in this tome, "These are strange times to be a Jew." Not one to flail the passive horse of Judaism forever, Chabon is merely intimating that down through history the times have never been quite as strange as the Jews. And one of the strangest of them all is, of course, Michael Chabon.

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I'm 62 years old, but I read at the 64-year-old level. Nevertheless, I still took this assignment somewhat grudgingly. At 432 pages, the book looked to me to be the kind of thing only a mother, and I use the word loosely, could love. Maybe a spiritual invalid might have the time or inclination to read it, I thought. Was it a great existential work of art or simply a case of Northern Exposure meets The Emperor Has No Clothes?

When someone takes a simple idea and makes it complex, that is what we call an intellectual. Chabon assuredly is an intellectual, but is he an artist? Sherlock Holmes, whom Chabon professes to admire, once observed that the difference between the killer and the artist is that the artist knows when to stop.

Great artists in my reckoning have always been out-of-control forces who invariably intertwined their passionate lives with their pluperfect art. Examples are Van Gogh, Mozart, Charles Bukowski, Hank Williams, Edgar .Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Foster, Allen Ginsberg, etc., etc. The fact that most of them were seen as tragic figures is no accident; it is merely one of the elements of their greatness. Bob Dylan once wrote that even above life, he prized madness. Contrast this with Chabon's professed primal pursuit of a "stable writing environment." Tell that to Franz Kafka.

But I suppose I can overlook the fact that Chabon is a script doctor for soulless Spiderman sequels. And that he received a Pulitzer Prize from the same kind of crazy, tall Norwouija boards who gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat and Jimmy Carter. Hell, my hat's off to him just for being able to write with four kids in the house.

Okay, so I'm reading The Yiddish policemen's Union at gunpoint, and I'm starting to like it. Chabon, with the lush skills of air F. Scott Fitzgerald, describes the deserted lobby of me flophouse hotel--with its sad, old sofas and "ashtray charm"--where Landsman has been living since his marriage went to hell. There's a "dead yid in 208," murdered with what appears to be a party-of-one chess match in progress. So Chabon has his detective talk to the night manager about chess, Landsman admitting to having "no feel for the middle game." "In my experience, Detective," says the night manager, "it's all middle game." In spite of Chabon's unspoken, possibly unwitting kinship with Gustave Flaubert, who claimed he lived to pour a few more buckets of shit upon mankind, this is great stuff.

If the slivovitz-swilling Landsman lives in strange times, they are playing out in an even stranger place--the fictional Yiddish frontier district of Sitka, a Jewish homeland carved from Alaska after World War II. (Chabon borrowed the idea from a long-forgotten but real wartime proposal of FDR's.) The Palestine experiment failed early, in Chabon's telling, so in place of sabras in the Jewish iconography, he offers "Polar Bears." "By now," he writes, "they were all staunch Alaskan Jews, which meant they were utopians, which meant they saw imperfection everywhere they looked. …

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