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An alternate reality, with Yiddish in Alaska

Chabon's latest packs big ideas and an entertaining story into a noir detective tale.

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"These are strange times to be a Jew."

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon's new novel, characters utter that phrase with frequency – and with ample justification. After all, their homeland, a tiny portion of Alaska (in this universe, the Jews lost the 1948 war and were sent scurrying for real estate wherever it could be found), will soon "revert" back to the United States government as part of a 60-year settlement scheduled to expire in two months.

Echoing Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," Chabon has taken a potential but unrealized historical twist and fashioned it into an entertaining literary novel, one that asks many pertinent questions and, in its alternate reality, seems a perfect fit for the post-9/11 world.

The novel accomplishes this in the guise of a noir detective story. The detective, Meyer Landsman, a burned-out, drunken nonbeliever, lives in a dilapidated hotel filled with fellow alcoholics and drug addicts, not to mention criminals and prostitutes.

Landsman, at the behest of the Hotel Zamenhof's manager, is summoned to investigate a murder in one of the rooms. He finds a heroin junkie who has been shot in the head, with the remnants of an unfinished chess match stationed nearby.

All of this takes place in the district of Sitka, the fictional Jewish homeland set up by the Americans. Chabon has all kinds of fun with his revised history, from the issuance of "Ickes" passports (a nod to the former FDR aide) to the Hotel Einstein, where men gather to play chess and gossip. In passing, Chabon winks as he makes casual mention of former first lady "Marilyn Monroe Kennedy in her pink pillbox hat, with mesmeric spirals for eyes."

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