Talk about your alternate universe! Michael Chabon has come up with a wild surprise. In his new, alternate-history novel, Chabon postulates a world in which Israel did not succeed in becoming an independent state in 1948. European Jews, desperately seeking refuge, were resettled instead into a strip of the Alaska coast. Jews being Jews, their society grew with all the complexities Jewish communities develop wherever they take root; tensions between the Jews and the native Indians, tensions between the black hat Jews and their modern co-religionists, crime, recreation, romantic entanglements and all. This post-war Alaskan Jewish world is richly imagined and painstakingly detailed with life unfolding for its inhabitants as life tends to do, in a messy, exciting, vibrant manner.
Then Chabon, using this unique setting, further sets all expectation on its head. He has created a novel that completely transcends genre, borrowing from, satirizing and thoroughly milking them all. He plays with the concept of genre, stretching it, riffing on it and clearly having fun creating something new. What we have here seems at first to be a gritty detective story and just as one settles in to enjoy it, it becomes a romance, no — a historical fiction, no — a Jerusalem-syndrome thriller, no — a sociology text, wait — it’s a comedy! The only genre left out is sci-fi! Each style is bounced off the other with a definite tongue-in-cheek approach synergizing into a readable pageturner along the way.
The cast of character is a motley yet endearing crew. In addition to our detective hero, there’s his partner, half Tlingit Indian, half Jew with a distinct personality legacy from each side. There’s the hard-boiled softie who’s our detective hero’s current boss and ex-wife. There’s a rebbe crime-boss, of course, and an otherworldly Messiah candidate who has met an untimely end. Where could one possibly find such a conglomeration of offbeat characters? Well, in Jewish Alaska, of course, where else?
We have come to expect masterly writing from Chabon, and this novel doesn’t disappoint. Most of his characters speak Yiddish to one another, so he seamlessly flavors his English with an unmistakable Yiddishe taam. And some of the writing can cause you to positively catch your breath. From a paragraph on waiting with despair in a hospital room: “The clock on the hospital wall hummed to itself, got antsy, kept snapping off pieces of the night with its minute hand.” From a paragraph about the evergreen yearning of Jews for their ancient homeland: “They are standing in a desert wind under the date palms, …in flowing robes that keep out the biblical sun, speaking Hebrew and they are all friends and brothers together, and mountains skip like rams, and hills like little lambs.” Michael Chabon has created something original. That’s something that doesn’t happen very often. Don’t miss it.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.