It begins with a murder and ends with the discovery of the murderer, but that's some of the least interesting material in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a novel so crammed with vivid, complex moments, situations, and ideas that what most amazed me about it was not that it kept from ever being confusing or convoluted -- it's both things at various times, particularly in the second half -- but that, against all odds, it all usually holds together so well.
It would be easy to see the book as little more than a detective story in an amusingly speculative milieu, a story that hints at greater aspirations but doesn't give life to them, a lark. There were certainly moments when I was reading when I wondered, "Well, is this all there is, then?" but those moments were fleeting, and the effect of the novel in the end was a profound one, though in an odd way. It's a book of implications, a vaudeville act that, looked at from a different angle, offers a glimpse of the entire universe.
The setting is the most attention-grabbing element of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, for this is an alternate history story in which Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes's suggestion in 1940 that Alaska be given to Jewish exiles from Europe was enacted, unlike in our world, where the idea gained about as much traction as a Ferrari on an iceberg. Chabon extrapolates the effects of this new world with impressive imagination, and his imaginative skill is matched by his wit, for throughout the book allusions to an assortment of alternative fields and philosophies pop up, but they seldom call attention to themselves, and sit quietly in the text as moments of amusement and added detail for readers in the know. (I was particularly taken with references to Orson Welles's film of Heart of Darkness. It was one of the few times when the world Chabon posits became one I wanted to move to.)
The setting is the primary concern of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, particularly the city of Sitka, where most of the events are set. The characters are mostly stock figures from crime stories, and rarely break the expectations of that form: there's the lonely, weary, alcoholic, rules-breaking homicide detective; his loyal partner; the difficult-but-ultimately-loyal boss; low-lifes on the prowl and on the take; gangster bosses with mysterious connections and ulterior motives with ulterior motives; soft-hearted tough guys; and a possible messiah. (Okay, so messiahs aren't exactly a staple of crime fiction. But other sorts of saviors certainly are.) Many of the characters are endearing and compelling, but it would be a mistake to say they have a lot of psychological nuance and depth, and a mistake, I think, to want them to have such nuance and depth, because many of the novel's joys come from Chabon's ability to manipulate the shorthand of various genres, including their character types.
Even with occasional stumbles of pacing and plot, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an immensely enjoyable book to be in the midst of reading. The pleasure for me did not come from the promise of a solution to the mystery -- by the middle, that barely held my attention -- but from Chabon's meticulous exploration of his imagined world. This is why the characters needed a certain flatness, a certain familiarity, because they are a vehicle for what the book is about, not its central purpose. The novel might have been able to offer more vivid characterizations, but such characterizations would have served little purpose and been, I expect, mostly distracting.
While it's easy to read The Yiddish Policemen's Union as an entertaining, quirky tale, there's more going on in its pages and between its lines. Chabon masterfully conveys the details of his world without obtrusive exposition. (The worst moment of infodumping happens in a late chapter, where so many threads of the plotline need to be tied up that he seems not to know what else to do, and so the point of view shifts awkwardly away from the protagonist and into somebody else's flashback.) We learn of the alternative world's points of departure from our own through suggestions rather than statements, with a narrative voice that would be appropriate to, well, a detective novel of that world.
Language is a primary tool for Chabon's speculations -- he has stated that he started thinking about the story after writing a controversial essay for Harper's about Yiddish, and that he wondered what a country where Yiddish was the primary language might be like. As Mark Oppenheimer points out in an informative review for the Jewish Daily Forward, this is not a minor question, and Chabon explores it with subtlety and rigor. Though the characters are mostly speaking Yiddish to each other (we're told when they break into "American"), we read their words and thoughts in contemporary English spritzed with Yiddish words and phrases, some of them familiar, some of them used by Chabon as neologisms and slang, showing how the language would live and grow within the environment of its Alaskan home.
In addition to what the story suggests about language -- how words affect a society, and how a society affects words -- there is also much in the book about power and belief, and the implications are sometimes unsettling. The dead man on the first page turns out to be the most purely honest and admirable character in the novel, and his descent into heroin addiction seems to have been an attempt to escape his own inherent goodness. All the other characters often act from ostensibly good motives -- even the worst schemers think they have people's best interests at heart -- but good motives have a habit of turning into zealotry, and zealotry of all sorts begets violence, whether the personally self-righteous zealotry of the crusading detective type, the religious zealotry that links the most deluded of the Jews with the most deluded power-brokers of a United States that seems to have been taken over by fundamentalist Christians, or the zealotry of political operatives who think they can conspire ways of pulling off grand plans for the benefit of all society. At the least, these true believers inflict bruises on each other; at the most, they launch missiles to vaporize their enemies.
By the last pages, we get a solution to the whodunnit that is anti-climactic mostly because the import of the story lies in the approach, not the arrival. We are left with two main characters who have some hope for their lives in amidst the ruins all around them, two characters who were flawed and compromised and now must make their way in a world that has become precarious for so many of their friends, colleagues, and rivals. A novel that reached out across space and time, that played with language and genre, that invoked noble truths and deflated its own pretenses, that whooped and scatted and wept -- this novel ends with a couple of characters, battered by the world and each other, looking with a certain dented happiness at an uncertain future, one where they will have to reinvent themselves and grow out of the stereotypes that have given them comfort through the years. It's a kind of hope for us all: though the world may feel sometimes senseless and sometimes brutal, there might be a few more shreds of happiness if we give our borders a bit of a wink and a nod, if we redistrict the lines of our limitations, if we accept the imperfections of our loves and let our zealotries go slack before we end up stuck between a rock and an endgame, with no good choice left to make but annihilation.
I said before that I think the book needs its characters to be somewhat flat and formulaic, and here's another reason why that's so: because in the end they need to be able to look to a future where they are no longer characters in a detective novel, where they have outgrown their genre and are, instead, whatever they want to be.