The Chabon-created world of the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska, is home to four million Jews, the Jews who would in our real world populate Israel. Such is the strength of Chabon’s writing that his bizarre, politically ambiguous entity seems quite real.
The author makes up words or superimposes his own meaning on real Yiddish words. For instance, "latkes" are not just for eating, they are also the police who wear a pancake-like headgear. (Chabon helpfully includes a glossary at the end of the book.) As the title indicates, this is the land of Yiddish-speaking people; Hebrew is a strange and little-used language. There are different sects, some of which are thinly veiled criminal gangs. Jewish traditions are more like law than mere convention. The rebbe or rabbi is still the main man, familial relationships are complex and important, and pilpul is standard operating procedure.
Furthermore, the Federal District of Sitka is set to revert back to the control of America in just a few weeks. Millions of Jews are threatened once again with diaspora. In this fictional world, Israel died a-borning as a Jewish state.
Into this self-contained world comes a murder. A man who lives in the same apartment building as Meyer Landsman, a hard-bitten and stubborn police detective, has been shot. Meyer takes the murder personally because of this propinquity. With the help of his partner/cousin Berko Shemetz, a Tlinget Indian/Jewish bear of a man, Meyer finds that he is not investigating the simple murder of a heroin addict. What he finds relates to a much larger picture.
The victim was the estranged son of a powerful rebbe, head of a ruthless criminal "black-hat" sect. Throughout his work, Chabon presents the reader with odd mixtures of inviolable religious ethics and dishonest activity. It is in attempting to solve this murder that Meyer expands from his narrow investigation to the wider consideration of how this fits into the upcoming "Reversion."
This is not just a homicide investigation, however; it is also a journey into the life of Meyer Landsman. All the disappointing and triumphal moments of Meyer’s life prove crucial to the resolution of the story. For example, in the stark room of the victim is a chessboard. On the chessboard is a game nearing its end. Meyer’s father was a master chess player and so, in the way of fathers and sons, Meyer has repudiated chess. But the thought of what the chessboard represents obsesses him, and so Meyer works at it and discovers the clue the end game provides.
The complexity of the characters and the plot are enough to reward the reader, but it is Chabon’s humor and beautiful use of language that makes this book extraordinary. Here are some examples:
In describing a mismatched chess game: "'I resign,' says Velvel. He takes off his glasses, slips them into his pocket, and stands up. He forgot an appointment. He’s late for work. His mother is calling him on the ultrasonic frequency reserved by the government for Jewish mothers in the event of lunch."
Landsman in a nutshell: "He is a dealer in entropy and a disbeliever by trade and inclination. To Landsman, heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery."
Chabon’s wry humor: "He’s parked in a cul-de-sac some developer laid out, paved, then saddled with the name of Tikvah Street, the Hebrew word denoting hope and connoting to the Yiddish ear on this grim afternoon at the end of time seventeen flavors of irony. The hoped-for houses were never built."
This book crosses many genres (noir, international intrigue, hard-boiled police procedural) and works many ideas together, but Chabon handles the juggling act well. It was hard not to race to the end but to do so would have been a disservice to the richness of the Sitka of Chabon’s imagining. My advice to you: linger.