Down these mean streets smelling of borsht

Best book I’ve read lately: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  There can’t be many detective stories that have also won the Hugo, to say nothing of passing as high literature, whatever that is.

It falls in the sf category by virtue of being set in an alternate history.  Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s secretary of the Interior, actually proposed in 1938 to resettle European Jews in Alaska.  Chabon imagines what would have happened if the proposal had passed and two or three million Jews had taken up Ickes’s offer (and Israel failed).  The story also comes out of an essay in which Chabon confronted a Yiddish phrasebook– the same one I quoted here— boggling at the idea of a nation or region somewhere in which touristic life could be conducted entirely in Yiddish.

Perhaps this should have been done by writing in Yiddish; Chabon settles for the next best thing– English slightly flavored by Yiddish:

“Look at the head on that sheygets, the thing has its own atmosphere,” Landsman says.  “Thing has ice caps.”

“Indeed the man has a very big head.”

The setting is itself, perhaps, the hero of the book, and Chabon lavishes considerable attention on making it real– a strange mix of Eastern European Jewry, Alaskan pines, Tlingits, and American noir.  (For exploring a milieu, you can hardly do better than a mystery, which gives you a chance to show off everything from the slums to the honchos.)  The only sf book I know that has as convincing an alternate history, in fact, is Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration.

There are moments of depth and poignancy, but also a quirky humor– very Jewish, you could say; few people are better at using humor just when things are darkest.

My one quibble would be with a part of the resolution… some very nasty villains are set up, and (avoiding spoilers here) they just don’t treat detective Landsman plausibly… these are not men who’d leave a loose end dangling.