May 22, 07
Read in May, 2007
Wow, this is a hell of a book. The prose style is ravishing - Chabon is definitely a maximalist. His language is virtuosic, full of pyrotechnics and equally in love with the idiom of hard-boiled detective fiction and with Yiddish. It blows you away, and it's also funny.
The world that Chabon creates - the federal district of Sitka, Alaska which became a temporary Jewish homeland after the Holocaust and the collapse of Israel in 1948 - is so thoroughly, magnificently detailed that you never question it for a moment. It's immersive - there is no blinking.
This book did for me what Tolkien's books did for so many people (and what no book has done for me since William Pene duBois' "The Twenty-One Balloons" in fourth grade) -- provided another world for the reader to enter and live in which has all the depth, flavor and texture as the real one, and is preferable. It makes your heart break to put the book down and remember that none of it is real. There are no Jews in Sitka.
Each character is vividly imagined and seemingly taken as an opportunity to have as much fun as possible with the premise - there's the detective's partner, a half-Tlingit-half-Jewish behemoth who wears a yarmulke and carries a tribal warhammer to aid in interrogations. There's the heavy, in this case a 400-lb hasidic rebbe. And there's the deceased, a gay, heroin-addicted, reluctant tzadik hador who uses tefillin to tie-off before shooting up for the last time and also happens to be a chess prodigy.
And it's deep, too! As if writing the first alternate-history-Yiddish-noir weren't enough for one book, Chabon also gets into some fairly heavy thematic territory: fathers and sons, faith and redemption, doubt and despair, alcoholism and drug dependency, marriage, messianism, homeland, and what I sense are the big questions for himself -- what is the birthright of the Jewish people? What is the inheritance of every Jew? What does it mean to be Jewish?
Do I have any problems with the book? Alright, maybe the pace slows a bit in the middle section (although I'm grateful to have spent more time with these characters). Maybe the solution to the mystery, the revelation of the grand conspiracy, feels less credible than the rest of the story. Maybe it seems like a stretch, but it also may be that it has to be as it is for thematic reasons.
I can't quibble with this thing. I loved it. It was a knockout. It's hard to be objective when a book is just two of my favorite things (Judaism and a murder-mystery) together at last, but I haven't gotten this much giddy joy out of a book since I was ten years old and reading about the diamond mines of Krakatoa. It carries you away - you put it down, and just like when you were a kid, you stare off, grinning, and say "wow..."