Michael Chabon ‘s book has been optioned by the Coen brothers, and that seems entirely appropriate. It is like a Jewish Sopranos episode seasoned by a Marx Brothers writer with a predilection for noir and a Fargo cast of characters, all baked into a tzimmes – the quintessential Jewish dish of endless variety, surprise, and subtle unexpected flavors.
The story takes some getting used to: as you would expect a Coen-friendly script to be, it can be rude, crude, and a little jarring. After all, in this imaginary Jewish Homeland of Sitka, Alaska, not only are the police Jews, but the gangsters as well. The official language of Sitka is Yiddish, and it is presumed that the characters speak it; non-translatable words are not translated (there is a glossary in the back), and at times, especially when savory cursing is needed, the characters “speak American.”
The premise that Israel as a refuge didn’t pan out, and that Alaska did, has an actual historical basis. Harold Ickes (Department of Interior Secretary in 1940) proposed that Alaska be established as a temporary sanctuary for Jewish refugees. Stout opposition from Alaskans quashed the idea before it even made it out of congressional committee.
In Chabon’s alternate universe, Jews have been living in Alaska for almost sixty years, since 1948; they are “the frozen chosen.” But sixty years also marks the end of the congressional mandate, and the land is about to go back to Alaskan control: “The Reversion.” Many of the Jews have nowhere to go; there is only a short list of places in which they will be welcome. As Meyer Landsman, the main character observes, “Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion, and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.” (Later he observes also that it’s pretty much always a strange time to be a Jew.)
Landsman (Yiddish slang for “member of the tribe”) is a homicide detective, as is his faithful partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, who is half-Jewish and half Tlingit (Alaskan native peoples), and who also has the Indian name Johnny “the Jew” Bear. As the novel starts, Landsman is rousted out of a post-divorce alcoholic stupor to investigate the murder of a mysterious man in his own apartment building. He calls upon Shemets to help him, and the two get involved in a dangerous, but also a humorous, and at times poignant, quest to find the killer. Their supervisor at work, Bina, who happens to be Landsman’s ex, joins in as the complications accelerate.
But this is not only a detective story. It is also a story of an imaginary city, and what Jewish life might be like if Jews lived in a different place than one surrounded by hostile Arabs. Sitka is not a utopia, but it’s home. It’s a love story. It’s a story of the struggle for identity. And it’s a book of soaring, clever prose that lets you fly over Sitka like a Chagall couple in love, sensing colors and patterns and emotions you would never have seen tethered to the ground.
An example: at one point, Landsman encounters an ashtray from a former neighborhood store, Krasny’s:
“Krasny’s, with its lending library and encyclopedic humidor and annual poetry prize, was crushed by American chain stores years ago, and at the sight of this homely ashtray, the squeeze box of Landsman’s heart gives a nostalgic wheeze.”
Or this: Landsman, when he’s facing Bina across the desk:
“He tries and fails not to observe the way her heavy breasts, each of whose moles and freckles he can still project like constellations against the planetarium dome of his imagination, strain against the placket and pockets of her shirt.”
Chabon starts the book with his dedication to his wife, whom he calls “Bashert” (destiny). The idea of bashert, that everything is meant to be, “the foolish coyote faith that could keep you flying as long as you kept kidding yourself that you could fly” is a recurring theme in the story; indeed, it is a recurring theme for the Jews. It ends the book as well.
Evaluation: This is a book that should not be missed, from a writer whose prose of disguised poetry should not go unheard.
Published by HarperCollins, 2007
Hugo Award for Best Novel (2008)
Nebula Award for Best Novel (2007)
Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2008)
Hammett Prize Nominee (2007)
California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction (2007)
John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2008)
Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2008)
Sidewise Award for Long Form (2007)