I just finished listening to the audiobook of Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a hardboiled alternate history novel set in a world where Israel falls in 1948 and its population of Jews relocate to a territory carved out of Alaska, a territory that is theirs for 60 years only. Now it is 2008, and the Alaskan settlement is to revert to the USA (or possibly to the native population, depending on the outcome of political struggles over its disposition), and in the final two months, Detective Meyer Landsman finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation.
In true hard-boiled style, the murder unpicks the seams of the whole rotten, corrupt mess, unearthing a political scandal that spans several continents, three major religions, a dead junkie messiah resurgent, and the resolution of Landsman's failed marriage to the woman who is now his boss in the Sitka police force.
I'm a great Chabon fan, and I think that this is his best book to date, better even than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, as it so perfectly marries the deadpan ironies of hardboiled fiction and Yiddish storytelling, in a word-drunk reel that spanned ten CDs of bitter humor and insight. In this regard, the book is nicely complemented by a virtuoso reading from Peter Riegert, who hasn't been this fantastically understated and sly since his asides in Animal House.
I was raised by Yiddish speakers of some fluency — and still have whole swaths of my family with whom I can only converse in my execrable Yiddish, learned through seven years of Sunday school at the Arbeiter Ring center in Toronto — and I've always loved the language for its slope-shouldered, wry, witty flavor. It's hard to capture that in English, but Chabon really nails it here, and it merges so perfectly into the hard-boiled storyline that you'd think that Chandler had been written by Sholem Aleichem.