Book for July 2009
It is — deep breath now — a murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller. The novel begins — the same way that Philip Roth launched The Plot Against America — with a fascinating historical footnote: what if, as Franklin Roosevelt proposed on the eve of World War II, a temporary Jewish settlement had been established on the Alaska panhandle? Roosevelt's plan went nowhere, but Chabon runs the idea into the present, back-loading his tale with a haunting history. Israel failed to get a foothold in the Middle East, and since the Sitka solution was only temporary, Alaskan Jews are about to lose their cold homeland.
The book's timeless refrain: "It's a strange time to be a Jew." Into this world arrives Chabon's Chandler-ready hero, Meyer Landsman, a drunken rogue cop who wakes in a flophouse to find that one of his neighbours has been murdered. With his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner and his sexy-tough boss, who happens also to be his ex-wife, Landsman investigates a fascinating underworld of Orthodox black-hat gangs and crime-lord rabbis.
This "Alyeska" is an act of fearless imagination, Chabon can certainly write noir—or whatever else he wants; his recent Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Solution, was lovely, even if the New York Times Book Review sniffed its surprise that the mystery novel would "appeal to the real writer." Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style. Characters have skin "as pale as a page of commentary" and rough voices "like an onion rolling in a bucket."
Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), was published when he was 25 and catapulted him to literary celebrity. He followed it with a second novel, Wonder Boys (1995), and two short-story collections. In 2000, Chabon published The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a critically acclaimed novel that John Leonard, in a 2007 review of a later novel, called Chabon's magnum opus; it received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. His novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, an alternate history mystery novel, was published in 2007 to enthusiastic reviews and won the Hugo, Sidewise, Nebula and Ignotus awards; his serialized novel Gentlemen of the Road appeared in book form in the fall of that same year.
His work is characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity. He often includes gay, bisexual, and Jewish characters in his work. Since the late 1990s, Chabon has written in an increasingly diverse series of styles for varied outlets; he is a notable defender of the merits of genre fiction and plot-driven fiction, and, along with novels, he has published screenplays, children's books, comics, and newspaper serials.