If your debut novel is called The Mysteries
of Pittsburgh, you are already on the path
towards inclusion in the postmodern
mystery rogues gallery. I
mean, other than Barry
Bonds' missed throw to
home plate in the bottom
of the ninth in game seven
of 1992 National League
championship series, what
in this city's past is suitably
mysterious for literary trans-
mogrification? Or is the
mystery how an unheralded
student writer, then working as an assistant
in his stepfather’s optometry office, could

secure a huge advance without even submitting
his novel to an agent or publisher? One of
Chabon’s college advisers, novelist MacDonald
Harris, did just that surreptitiously, starting
off a bidding war and setting in motion
Michael Chabon's charmed literary career.
The book was a solid seller, and was followed
by Wonder Boys—written in seven months
after Chabon abandoned the unwieldy
second novel that had bogged him down—
and then came the Pulitzer Prize winning
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
But Chabon’s zeal for the mysterious returned
with
The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007)
which combined alternative history, hard-
boiled Chandler-esque crime investigation,
and Chabon’s characteristically vivid prose.
A movie version by the Coen Brothers—a
perfect match for this story—is in the works.  
When not writing genre-busting books,

Chabon has turned out the chance to star
in an ad for The Gap, and get photographed
as one of People magazine’s "50 most
beautiful people."
ROGUES GALLERY:
MICHAEL CHABON
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Essay by Ted Gioia

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a
strange, brilliant book that readers will find difficult
to classify. Is it a Zionist Da Vinci Code? A work of
alternative reality in the manner of Philip K. Dick? A
hard-boiled mystery novel? A grand literary effort in
the high style? It is, in fact, all these things, and more.

Back in 1995, The Washington Post
dubbed Michael Chabon as "the
young star of American letters."
Chabon has lived up to the early  
hype. Since the dawn of the mil-
lennium, he has seen his
Wonder
Boys
made into a movie with Michael
Douglas, and won the 2001 Pulitzer
Prize for his novel
The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Along the way, he turned down a
chance to appear in a Gap ad, and
sent
People magazine packing when
they wanted to place him on their list of the "50 Most
Beautiful People." (And who says that serious novelists
don’t lead glamorous lives?)

Now Chabon has treated his fans with a new novel that
will rank among his finest works. Imagine, for a moment,
that Franklin Roosevelt had responded to the plight of
European Jews by setting aside part of Alaska as a
homeland for the Diaspora. This intriguing premise is
Chabon’s starting point for
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
a mind-bending game of what-if similar to Philip Roth’s
recent literary effort to re-imagine America if Lindbergh
had been elected President in 1940, or Dick’s depiction
of the United States in the aftermath of a defeat in World
War II.

Related Reviews
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Gentlemen of the Road

Chabon takes delight in his alternative Alaska, and
lovingly describes all the small details -- food, fashion,
ritual, place names and the like -- in a playful, ingenious
manner. Occasionally, he lets a few other snippets
of alternative history escape in a passing mention,
referring to the first lady Marilyn Monroe Kennedy or
a Vietnam-like war in Cuba.

But this imaginative reconstruction of a Jewish Alaska is
merely the backdrop for a intricately plotted mystery,
which is the second layer in Chabon’s multifaceted
novel. Down-and-out detective Meyer Landsman finds
a dead body in his skid-row hotel, and is determined to
track down the murderer, despite warnings from higher-
ups that this is a case that he should not investigate.

The clues he assembles are odd ones. Chess pieces are
arrayed in a peculiar endgame position near the body.
The deceased lived under different aliases, all drawn
from famous chess players in the past. And the victim’s
life is as puzzling as his death – some saw him as a
pathetic junkie, others as the potential leader of a messianic
cult.

The third layer of the plot brings us into the realm of the
The Da Vinci Code, where conspiracies and secretive
organizations and two millennia of arcane history emerge
as provocative undercurrents in the story. Yet Chabon
brings all these elements together, seamlessly telling his
tale on several different levels. And, as always with
Chabon, the entire book is meticulously written. Chabon
writes with great intelligence and creativity, page by
page, paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by
sentence. By any measure,
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is
a significant work by one of America’s finest novelists, a
whimsical whodunit with a double dose of literary flare.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and pop culture. His
latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: M
ay 8, 2007.
Click on image to purchase
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon

Further Clues:

Michael Chabon Q&A

The Coen Brothers Plan Film Version of The
Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Fourteen Skies of Michael Chabon
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

Return to Home Page

Contact Info:
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www.tedgioia.com

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Fictionaut
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