Author creates alternate Southeast Alaska reality in new book

'Yiddish Policemen's Union' imagines Sitka as a Jewish sanctuary

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2007

BERKELEY, Calif. - A wartime proposal to turn Southeast Alaska into a sanctuary for Jews fleeing the rising Nazi menace failed.

But suppose it hadn't.

That's the premise of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon's new book, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," a multilayered novel that is a detective yarn, alternate history, love story and terrorist thriller all wrapped up in one genre-bending package.

"I get excited by the idea of blurring the boundaries between different kinds of fiction," said Chabon, interviewed recently in his sunny backyard in a quiet corner of Berkeley. The result seems to be a kind of literary fusion cuisine, taking forms and genres "usually kept pretty rigidly separate and letting them bleed together and see what happens."

What happens in "Policemen's Union," Chabon's first full-length adult novel since winning the Pulitzer in 2001 for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," stems from an essay he wrote some years ago about a book called "Say It in Yiddish."

What, Chabon wondered in his piece, could be the utility of such a guide?

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The essay prompted a small but vigorous protest from people who thought - mistakenly, Chabon says - that the author was making light of Yiddish, the language once-prevalent among Jews in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

One upshot was that he was inspired to get a better handle on Yiddish, a language he'd heard spoken as a child. The other was that he found himself increasingly drawn to something he'd mentioned briefly in the essay - the proposal to allow Jewish refugees into Alaska and what might have been the result.

"I just couldn't stop thinking about that imaginary Yiddish country that I'd alluded to and I wanted to go back there. So, I just tried to think of a way I could do that in fictional form," he said.

"Policemen's Union," due out Tuesday from HarperCollins, follows "Summerland," a best-selling children's book published in 2002, and a short novel, "The Final Solution."

"After 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,' I thought it would be hard to ever top that," said Jennifer Barth, an executive editor and vice president of HarperCollins. "But this book stands on its own as an equally imaginative and exciting and also moving story."

The police officer in "Policemen's Union," is Meyer Landsman, a detective who gets an unexpected case when one of the residents of the rundown hotel where he lives is found shot to death.

Landsman, in the best tradition of hard-boiled, hard-luck heroes, is a mess. Chabon telegraphs a lot with a little when he has Landsman pick up "the shot glass that he is currently dating," as the book opens.

Landsman must find out whodunit (and, for that matter, who was done) as well as why - a question that leads to some seriously weird characters and the surreal world of messianic politics.

The dogged quest to uncover the true identity of the dead man, a former chess prodigy, unfolds in classic noir tradition, a familiar form that helps lead the reader into Chabon's imagined land of the Federal District of Sitka.

"One of the reasons that I chose to work in the form of the detective novel is so that it would afford me the opportunity to explore and explain the world that we were moving in, to investigate it, literally, so that a reader that didn't know anything about it would be able to find out along with the main character," he said.

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