- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

BERKELEY, Calif. — A wartime proposal to turn Alaska into a sanctuary for Jews fleeing the rising Nazi menace failed.

Suppose it hadn’t.

That’s the premise of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon’s new book, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” a multilayered novel that is a detective yarn, alternate history, love story and terrorist thriller all wrapped up in one genre-bending package.

“I get excited by the idea of blurring the boundaries between different kinds of fiction,” says Mr. Chabon, interviewed recently in his sunny back yard in a quiet corner of Berkeley. The result seems to be a kind of literary fusion cuisine, taking forms and genres “usually kept pretty rigidly separate and letting them bleed together and see what happens.”

What happens in “Policemen’s Union,” Mr. Chabon’s first full-length adult novel since he won the Pulitzer in 2001 for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” stems from an essay he wrote some years ago about a book called “Say It in Yiddish.”

What, Mr. Chabon wondered in his essay, could be the utility of such a guide?

The essay prompted a small but vigorous protest from people who thought — mistakenly, Mr. Chabon says — that the author was making light of Yiddish, the language once prevalent among Jews in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

One upshot was that he was inspired to get a better handle on Yiddish, a language he had heard spoken as a child. The other was that he found himself increasingly drawn to something he had mentioned briefly in the essay: the proposal to allow Jewish refugees into Alaska and what might have been the result.

“I just couldn’t stop thinking about that imaginary Yiddish country that I’d alluded to, and I wanted to go back there. So, I just tried to think of a way I could do that in fictional form,” he says.

“Policemen’s Union,” due out Tuesday from HarperCollins, follows “Summerland,” a best-selling children’s book published in 2002, and a short novel, “The Final Solution.”

“After ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,’ I thought it would be hard to ever top that,” says Jennifer Barth, an executive editor and vice president of HarperCollins. “But this book stands on its own as an equally imaginative and exciting and also moving story.”

The police officer in “Policemen’s Union,” is Meyer Landsman, a detective who gets an unexpected case when one of the residents of the run-down hotel where he lives is found shot to death.

Landsman, in the best tradition of hard-boiled hard-luck heroes, is a mess. Mr. Chabon telegraphs a lot with a little when he has Landsman pick up “the shot glass that he is currently dating” as the book opens.

Landsman must find out whodunit (and, for that matter, who was done) as well as why — a question that leads to some seriously weird characters and the surreal world of messianic politics.

The dogged quest to uncover the true identity of the dead man, a former chess prodigy, unfolds in classic noir tradition, a familiar form that helps lead the reader into Mr. Chabon’s imagined land of the Federal District of Sitka.

“One of the reasons that I chose to work in the form of the detective novel is so that it would afford me the opportunity to explore and explain the world that we were moving in, to investigate it, literally, so that a reader that didn’t know anything about it would be able to find out along with the main character,” he says.

Mr. Chabon sprinkles his prose with Yiddish, which may be unfamiliar at first. Yet it also helps establish an alternate reality so solid it starts to seem perfectly reasonable that Alaska is home to a 60-year-old federal Jewish territory on the brink of reverting to state control.

“It felt so real, I thought there must be some basis for it,” says Luisa Smith, a buyer for Book Passage, an independent bookstore with branches in San Francisco and nearby Corte Madera. “I kept stopping and looking at the back and thinking, ‘Did I miss something?’ ”

Although the subject is different, the style will be familiar to Mr. Chabon’s readers, Miss Smith says — “great dialogue, great characters, beautiful writing.”

And hot wheels. Things may not be going very well for Landsman, but he has the keys to some serious metal muscle in the form of a 1971 Super Sport Chevelle.

In real life, a minivan and hybrid are parked outside the house Mr. Chabon shares with his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. “Not exactly a muscle car,” says Mr. Chabon, who with his wildly curling brown hair and intense gray eyes doesn’t exactly fit the image of suburban dad.

Mr. Chabon does his writing in a cottage in his back yard, as does Ms. Waldman, author of “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” and the Mommy-Track mystery series. Ms. Waldman, who briefly emerges from the cottage midinterview to do some stretching exercises, crisply assesses her husband’s latest as “amazing, the best thing he’s ever written.”

At HarperCollins, which has ordered 250,000 for the first printing, Miss Barth senses “a lot of anticipation for this book.”

From another writer, the premise of “Policemen’s Union,” might seem outlandish, but with Mr. Chabon, “people know that his genius is in taking something wildly inventive and different and out of the box and making it really human and accessible and universal,” she says. “He might challenge you to expand your horizons a bit, or your preconceived notions, but he’s not asking you to sign on to a world that doesn’t have recognizable characters or traits or emotions. He loves his characters, and that comes through.”

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