Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

If I Was Less of a Raging Gentile, There Would Be All Manner of Cool Yiddish Slang in This Review

Seeing as how there's been quite a bit of ink/pixels/whatever spilled on the subject of Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, I will be brief.

Damn, it's good.

Reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union, I was reminded of that Dylan tune from the Wonderboys soundtrack, "Things Have Changed".* It ain't the greatest thing ol' Bob ever done, but it's damn fine songwriting and perks along at a zippy pace - a seemingly effortless little tale that is a lot harder to write than it looks. It gets stuck in your head for days, and even if it maybe doesn't quite measure up to his earlier stuff it's just a pleasure to enjoy something made by someone who's so good at what they do.

Chabon gives us a world where, instead of Israel, the displaced Jews of WWII got a chunk of Alaska called Sitka. Our Hero - Sitka homicide detective Meyer Landsman - has recently had a truly wretched divorce and is living in a fleabag hotel, deep into a romance with a shot glass and a bottle of slivovitz. When a junkie a few rooms over turns up dead, shot execution-style in the back of the head with a half-finished chess game on the table next to his bed, Lansman takes it personal and sets out to find the killer.

Things in Sitka are often not what they seem, and it is - in an oft-repeated phrase around the town - "A strange time to be a Jew". Mysteries deepen, thuggish Orthodox "Black Hats" are up to something, and the long-planned date of "Resettlement" is fast approaching, when the Jews of Sitka will have to hand the place back over to the Feds.

I won't say much else about the plot, as is only fair with a detective story, but I will say this: it almost - but I would say not quite - goes off the rails towards the end.

On the other hand, it's a hell of a yarn and it's written like gangbusters. Chabon can string a sentence together like few else out there. It is simply a blast and a half to read the man's prose, and for that, I'll forgive just about anything.

If I had to sum up the novel's appeal - its heady blend of "What if...?", hardboiled Judaica and masterful writing - I'd do it with the following sentence, in which Landsman is struggling with a suspect for his gat.

"He yanks his sholem loose and turns it around, and the world pulls the trigger on all its guns."

Seriously. It's good.

*This flick, philistine that I am, was my first introduction to this Chabon feller. Also, Alan "Wash from Firefly" Tudyk played the janitor/former student of the protagonist in the film. And now you know.


franQ said...

Hearing all this talk of the new Chabon release makes me a little sad…

A year ago, I would have been thrilled and no doubt attended his book signing. He’s been my favorite author since I first read his debut novel THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH back in the early 90s.

But I can no longer support the work of an author who has no regard for the story and characters that put him on the literary map.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a film version of MOP coming out later this year… Written and directed by the guy who brought us DODGEBALL, in which he’s CHANGED 85% of Chabon’s original story.

And the sad part is… Michael Chabon himself APPROVED of the script! WHY would he do this? I can only think of one possible answer: $$

If you are a Chabon fan, esp MOP, I suggest you do NOT see this movie. You will be sadly disappointed at the COMPLETE removal of the gay character, Arthur Lecomte, and the fabrication of a romantic love triangle between Art Bechstein, Jane Bellwether, and a bi-sexual Cleveland Arning. And really, what is MOP without the presence of Phlox Lombardi? Alas, she’s barely in it.

Brady said...

I guess I see your point, but I have to agree with Alan Moore - probably the popular writer whose best work is most routinely mauled on the big screen - on this one: there's the book, and then there's the movie, and if somebody wants to pay an author a lot of money to base a film on their book, eh, why not, as long as we all understand that the book has nothing to do with the movie.

(Which is to say, nothing the movie can do will change one word of the book, and if the moviemakers mess it up, well, that's their mistake to make.)

As far as the cash/selling out issue...well, having been a self-employed artist-type, writers of literary fiction (along with former leaders of cult bands, session musicians, and other folks who should know better) get a pass on me from accusations of selling out. Folks gotta eat and all, and as long as Chabon isn't going back and releasing a movie novelization that has been heavily edited, I don't see it so much as a sellout or cash-in.

In fairness, this could also be because I just couldn't get into Mysteries of Pittsburgh.