Cold Comfort

The very mention of ethnic humor produces a noirish cloud over the conversation, a reminder that most ethnicities are engaged in the bipolar behavior of worrying about survival and celebrating small victories. Will we make it? And, your son may be a doctor, but my son is a bigger doctor.

Modern Irish humor, for instance, reverts to the effects of the potato famine. Polish humor involves a constant search for the answer to the question, Why us? And English humor has its origins in bad food.

The most memorable ethnic humor separates itself from bargain store bigotry by turning the light of inquiry directly on itself and grilling it for answers as though it were a suspect on “Law and Order.” Memorable ethnic humor, survival-oriented, is laced with irony, self-deprecation, and an eye for the grotesque, both in character and event. Grotesque characters and events can thus be seen as a frontal attack not only on individuals and types of individuals, but on the entire body politic.

Any new novel by Michael Chabon is an adventure, some more precipitous and analytic in their reach than others, more grounded in a zeitgeist with the power to disturb than with an apparent reliance on a stunning prose style and ability to dazzle with fancy footwork.

Chabon has said in interviews that he reads to be entertained, and writes to accomplish the same end, a task at which he has been wildly successful. Sometimes he is so successful, as in “Wonder Boys,” that we fail to notice we have been disturbed as well as entertained.

Welcome to the guilt-ridden world of Jewish humor, as draped with angst and irony as a boutique Christmas tree is with ornaments. The world into which Mr. Chabon, as crafty as a maitre d’ at a tourist restaurant, bids us enter after having parted with $26.95 is “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” (Harper Collins), the title alone as much of an inducement as the marquis in front of an old-fashioned burlesque theatre.

In this staggering world of noir, angst, and imagination, we are confronted with a murder which must be solved by Meyer Landsman, a character whose very name if not his mordant demeanor identify his ethnicity. Landsman. Countryman. “Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered,” Chabon writes.

Landsman is a homicide detective with the district police, er no, that should be District Police, because Chabon has already been at work, creating a backstory that is reminiscent of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against the U.S.,” in which Charles Lindbergh has defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 to become President of the United States.

In “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” Chabon has given us a world where District Police means Sitka, Alaska. It is a world where the experiment that was Israel failed in 1948, and the U.S. Government, in a paroxysm of sympathy, has allowed all those Jews who wished to come to the newly created Sitka Territory to make a life for themselves and serve as a role model – See, we can do it! We can maintain our own state.

The Sitka experiment has a timeline of 60 years. As the novel begins and Emanuel Lasker, an accomplished chess player, is murdered, right under Landsman’s nose, as it were, time on the Sitka experiment is running out. Sitka is soon to revert to the rest of Alaska, leaving the Jews once again with the prospects of a Diaspora.

Thus in a series of bold, swift moves does Chabon move from his ongoing interest in the pulps and comic books of the past, into the world of the detective thriller (with, I might add, an inventive and satisfying puzzle) yanking into the frame the ghost of the other Philip – not Roth – Marlowe. And in that yank, we see how those noir golems of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett may well have Anglo-Saxon names but their suspicions, their codes of morality, and their drive are all of a piece with the framework of Jewish humor.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” Raymond Chandler wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder,” referring to the private detective, the then equivalent of the knight errant. “[He]..is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything.”

Interestingly enough, when Chandler’s protagonist wraps up his cases, he takes out a chess board, mixes himself a tall one, and replays famous chess matches of the past by himself.

Landsman’s later father was a chess genius; Landsman, himself, hated the game, a hatred he came to believe was responsible for his father’s death.

Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shmets, set forth to solve the murder before them, in a Sitka turmoil of a world, in which there are smart-assed rabbis and overweening chess mavens, a world in which Yiddish, that wondrously alive border language of Hebrew and whatever merge to provide meaning and intent, a world of guilt, betrayal, and animosities that demonstrate the utter foolishness of violence, much less war.

What, you might ask, was Landsman doing, living in such a flophouse hotel for nine months? What, you might ask, has happened to his wife, and how did the discovery of the true cause of his father’s death affect Landsman’s Diaspora toward redemption? What, indeed, did Landsman need redemption from?

Michael Chabon has worked more than an entertainment here, although, reading these pages, it is easy to imagine him having been entertained and challenged throughout the writing of it. Never again will you read a hardboiled detective novel without thinking of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” of the temporary Alaskan home for the displaced Jews of the world, and of Meyer Landsman. However gentile your hardboiled detective novel is, you will begin wondering to yourself, where noir ends and ethnic humor take the night shift.

“Nineteen forty-eight,” Chabon writes. “Strange times to be a Jew.” To illustrate the strangeness, he relates the story set amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, where a chicken turned on the ritual slaughterer as he raised his knife, the chicken then announcing in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. The miraculous chicken “offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God himself, is afterward featured. Even the most casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well as strange times to be a chicken.”