Chabons cops n gonifs drink, amaze and beguile

Perhaps only Michael Chabon could describe a plateful of trembling, gelatinous kugel with a dollop of herring — unidentified grease and pinhead-sized eggs whiter than a grapefruit rind spilling out of its punctured guts — and make it sound artful.

Perhaps only Michael Chabon would try.

Unlike writers like Jonathan Franzen, who writes with the fluid grace of Roberto Clemente patrolling right field, Chabon’s prose feels methodical. It reads as if Chabon has spent a good, long time thinking about what he wants to say and how he’s going to say it. And that would be a pejorative if Chabon wasn’t such a brilliant thinker.

This brilliance on display with the very concept of the Berkeley author’s latest novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”

Imagine if the United States began resettling Europe’s persecuted Jews of the 1930s in the Alaskan outback. Now keep imagining that the Arabs did indeed sweep the Israelis into the sea in 1948. Throw in place names such as Oysshtelung Island and Max Nordau Street and you get the gist of the complicated, Yiddish-infused world Chabon has created.

Like Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” this is not some airy-fairy, highfalutin, unapproachable work of literature — it’s a high-octane, ripping yarn, and I suggest you hold onto the book with both hands lest you lose control and tumble from your reading chair.

The author’s gift for description leaps off the page — sometimes a bit too high and off too many pages. Federal agents are “fluid pink giants with haircuts that occupy the neat interval between astronaut and pedophile scoutmaster.” The maven of a Chassidic district’s eruv is “a wizard, a juju man, with his fingers on the strings that ring the District and his palms cupping the brackish water of their souls every Sabbath.”

Now, I will randomly open the book to a page — it’s 169 — and see what brilliant text leaps off the page: “Bina never stopped wanting to redeem the world. She just let the world she was trying to redeem get smaller and smaller until, at one point, it could be bounded in the hat of a hopeless policeman.”

It’s that easy. There’s a clever passage on nearly all 414 pages. And while Chabon’s skill is otherworldly, one sometimes wishes he didn’t feel the need to describe every last noodle in the kugel, or odor on the breath of menacing Chassids. At times he seems like the relative who insists on taking out the video camera at every family get-together. “Michael, enough already, put that thing away!”

Chabon’s book hits the ground running from the first page when Tenenboym, the night manager of the Hotel Zamenhof, wakes detective Meyer Landsman out of a Slivovitz-induced coma to inform him that “the yid” in Room 208 has been shot through the head (in a 99 percent Jewish enclave, characters often refer to each other as “yids.” It gets a little less jarring after the 1,000th reference).

A self-destructive, suicidal alcoholic who has blown every opportunity he’s been given by his generous family and friends, Landsman is a woeful, deep and wonderful character. He and his partner-cousin Berko Shemets — a 6-foot-8 half-Jew, half-Tlingit who sports a war hammer and a kippah — speak almost exclusively in Yiddish. (The only words uttered in American English are not the sort we can reprint here).

Indeed, Chabon uses so much Yiddish in this book that each copy ought to come shrink-wrapped with Leo Rosten. A detective is a “noz,” a uniformed cop is a “latke,” a gun is a “sholem,” a cell phone is a “shoyfer” — and that’s just for starters.

The first several chapters are absolutely smoking — Chabon is in top form, accenting his work with a noir-ish touch befitting a cop story led by a suicidal detective who drinks himself to sleep with plum brandy every night. Then, as a plot more labyrinthine than the eruv maven’s network falls into place, the book shifts into a lower gear and begins to labor, like a bus mounting a hill.

In the end, a series of world-altering cataclysms rattle the course of human events and — T.S. Eliot be damned — the novel ends with both a bang and a whimper.

That said, the plot, for all its diabolical twists and turns, is not nearly as enjoyable as Chabon’s characters. I would have preferred reading 10 short tales than one long novel. If a book of Meyer Landsman detective stories does hit the bookstores in the future (à la “Rumpole of the Bailey”), I’d buy it in a nanosecond — or steal yours at sholem-point.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon (414 pages, HarperCollins, $26.95)

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.