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The idea hit him right in the kishkes

Michael Chabon posits Alaska as the Jewish homeland in `Yiddish Policemen's Union.'

May 01, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — With his combination of literary seriousness (long, heavily researched novels), fruitful relationship to ethnic identity (Jewish) and ability to mine pop genres (science fiction, comic books), Berkeley resident Michael Chabon may have the highest capital of any West Coast writer.

Today Harper Collins releases "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," a detective story, sort of, set in an alternate universe, kind of, where the Jews have been resettled to Alaska. It's also Chabon's first full-length novel for adults since "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Chabon: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about novelist Michael Chabon said he first made waves in 1998 with his novel "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." It was published in 1988.

He may be the only novelist in history to write for both the New York Review of Books -- where he recently had a ravishing essay on Cormac McCarthy and apocalypse fiction -- and Details (where his latest contribution concerned "the man purse").

Throw in leonine good looks that he often finds embarrassing and he can seem like the Prom King of American letters.

So it's refreshing to see that Chabon, he of the sharp cheekbones and shimmering sentences, doesn't spend all his time walking on water.

After dinner on a cool, clear recent night at his brown shingle house, Chabon sat at the kitchen table talking about his novel's origins while his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a writer and as playfully brassy as her husband is earnestly soft-spoken, was washing dishes.

Suddenly, screams from upstairs. One of his four kids has locked himself in the bathroom. "Put your iPod on!" Chabon yelled to his daughter, who seemed to be somehow involved. Loud crash. Chabon, who is built like a ballet dancer, with long limbs and a thick chest, took off upstairs.

"Welcome to my life!" Waldman yelled.

Chabon, 43, first made waves in 1998 with the sexually ambiguous coming-of-age story "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," written for his UC Irvine MFA. After the low-key novel "Wonder Boys" (written while he lived in L.A. and later made into a film) and then two story collections, Chabon exploded into the top ranks of contemporary authors with "Kavalier & Clay," the affectionate story of two New York cousins behind the "Golden Age" of comics. The book, with its electric prose, dovetailed with the push for artistic and literary respect for comics of past and present.

The novel that followed, "Summerland," a children's story that merged baseball with mythology, drew mixed reviews but became one of the bestselling kids books ever.

(He has also, over the last decade or so, worked on several scripts in a process he described as "lucrative but not fruitful." A film of "Pittsburgh" is in post-production, but the "Kavalier & Clay" movie has fallen through.)

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" begins with a down-on-his-luck cop who discovers that a resident of his fleabag hotel -- a mysterious, perhaps saintly loner dedicated to both heroin and chess -- has been murdered. Landsman, the cop, pursues his killer through a world of chess savants, Alaskan tundra and "black hats" -- ultra-orthodox thugs -- while answering to a boss who happens to be his ex-wife. Oh yeah, it all takes place in an alternate universe, in which the Jewish settlement of Alaska is, after a 60-year lease, set to lapse.

The novel was sparked by Chabon finding a 1958 travel guidebook called "Say It in Yiddish."

"I was just puzzled," he said after returning, the screams from upstairs having subsided. "And sort of haunted and mystified, too, by the idea of this Yiddish phrasebook for travelers."

While Chabon was pondering the matter -- and lamenting that had it not been for the Holocaust, Eastern Europe would likely be filled with millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews -- he recalled something he'd once read about FDR's Interior secretary suggesting Alaska as the new Jewish homeland.

So he started to imagine "a counter-Israel, in a sense -- cold, northern, Yiddish-speaking instead of Hebrew speaking."

Part of the excitement for Chabon was diving into the world of Yiddish, the German dialect that gradually incorporated words from Slavic languages and Hebrew. Yiddish produced what he considers an overlooked modernist literature, but never quite shook its oppressed-masses associations, especially among Jews. ("When it came time to found Israel, to speak Hebrew was a political statement: 'This is a new country, a new people, we're leaving the ghetto behind.' ")

His bits of the language -- best known to most Gentile readers for its rich well of insults and curse words -- give the book's prose a distinctive tang.

Chabon knew that a detailed alternate world would make storytelling even harder. "One way to solve that problem," he said, "was to have a protagonist who has access to all levels of that society. And I wanted a sense of movement, so it felt natural to conceive it as a detective story."

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