Michael Chabon Constructs
a Zionist
Da Vinci Code

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.

Twelve years ago,
The Washington Post
dubbed Michael Chabon as “the young
star of American letters.” Chabon, who
turns forty-four in a few days, has lived
up to the early hype. Since the dawn of
the millennium, he has seen his
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
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.

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.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a significant work by one of America’s finest
novelists. In the coming weeks, a number of major authors -- Don DeLillo,
Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, and others -- are releasing books. In short,
the competition for best novel this spring will be as hotly contested as the
NBA playoffs. But Chabon has made the competition all the stiffer with this
brilliant and rich fiction, a whimsical whodunit with a double dose of literary

This review originally appeared on

by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is
fascinated by the
figure of the
superhero, and finds
the fallible and
elements hidden
the mask of
Chabon is a
brilliant story-teller
and a skilled prose
stylist.   Yet his
characters remain
mysterious, despite
all his probing.   
Their actions
constantly thwart our
expectations of their
character and
drives.  Perhaps this
is the flaw in
Chabon's own
powers -- or perhap
the sign of an
even deeper insight
on his part:  
namely, that
individual destiny is
always surprising,
even to the
individual, and never
an obvious
extension of past
personal history.