Friday, February 13, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

In 1938, Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior in the Roosevelt Administration, proposed that the Alaskan territory be opened to the Jews of Germany and other European counties experiencing "oppressive restrictions." The idea was, of course, rejected by Congress. But what if it had met with approval?

This is the historical footnote that provides Michael Chabon (SHAY bon) the setting for his 2007 alternative history/detective novel entitled The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Chabon, who won a Pulitzer in fiction in 2001 for Kavalier & Clay and a Hugo in 2008 for this work, is a master craftsman with language, even creating for the residents of fictionalized Sitka, Alaska, a slang vocabulary all their own.

This is a world of rebbes gone wild. And when the messiah comes, he is unable to bear the burden of his calling.

Even if you don't normally read fiction, sample Chabon's work for his use of language and the vividness of his descriptions. Here's a sample, a description of a steak house where his protagonist, Detective Meyer Landsman is dining:

"The decor is minimal as a snack bar's, vinyl and laminate and steel. The plates are plastic, the napkins crinkly as the paper on a doctor's table. You order your food at a counter and sit down with a number on a spindle. The waitresses are renowned for their advanced age, ill humor, and physical resemblance to the cabs of long-haul trucks. All the atmosphere in the place is the product of its liquor license and its clientele: pilots, hunters and fishermen, and the usual Yakovy mix of shtarkers and sub rosa operators. On a Friday night in season, you can buy or sell anything from moose meat to ketamine, and hear some of the most arrant lies ever put to language."

shtarker (Sitka slang, lit. "gangster") strongman

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