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The long shalom

Like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, a Jewish detective struggles with murder and the endless farewell of exile

Writer Michael Chabon in downtown Sitka, Alaska, the setting for the Jewish homeland of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." (Michael Penn for The New York Times)

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 414 pp., $26.95

In his best and most boisterous novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," Michael Chabon realized his desire to write a novel that both mirrored the world and contained it. His ode to mass culture -- to the golden age of the comic book, to the all-boy, pen-and-ink culture that worshiped there -- was also a sprawling love story, whether to magic acts or romance or the noble martyrs of and victors over Nazi Germany. Fluent and unstoppable, Chabon is the kind of writer who carries ambition like a knife between his teeth. His triumphs can radiate with the joy of the work itself.

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is fueled with this sort of energy, but it's a strange, passionate misfire -- obsessively constructed, meticulously researched, Byzantine in its plot line, but a thing of wonder only to itself. It's half-brilliant but half-boring, maybe because Chabon has so fallen under the sway of his creation that he lost control of its tenets. A reimagining of history in which the Jews lost Israel in 1948 and immigrated instead to Alaska, the book is also an homage to the noir detective novel, with a weary, hard-drinking Jewish detective named Meyer Landsman at its center. It's the year 2007, and the 3 million-plus Jews in greater Sitka -- "a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline" off the Gulf of Alaska -- are about to forfeit this particular homeland in the upcoming Reversion, when the district returns to Alaska's control. When the story opens, a hungover Landsman has been awakened in his flophouse to investigate a shooting down the hall, where a man has been found in the middle of a solitary chess game with a bullet in his brain.

So far , so good; the first quarter of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" seems to possess the same verve and possibility as "Kavalier and Clay." Divorced from Bina Gelbfish, the detective who returns to the crime scene as his boss, Landsman appears as a classic noir sinner-saint: "He has the memory of a convict, the [chutzpah] of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker." Not to mention a fabulously tragic past in which chess figures mightily -- his father, dead by suicide, was a genius at the game, and Landsman believes that his failure as a son caused the elder's death. The other familial calamity of the novel is crucial to its whodunit framework. The murder victim, first identified as Emanuel Lasker, turns out to be a former chess prodigy turned heroin addict, and his estranged father -- a physical behemoth straight out of the bar scenes in "Star Wars" -- is the rebbe of a Hassidic sect not unlike today's real-world Lubavitchers. When Landsman and his partner, a half-Tlingit Indian named Berko, go after the rebbe to investigate his son's death, they find a labyrinthine trail of corruption, back-room politics, and messianic fantasies that would give Sam Spade a migraine.

The title of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" refers to a powerless fraternal organization to which Landsman belongs, and it gives evidence of Chabon's bent and excess both. In Sitka , Yiddish is the official language; the Jewish inhabitants refer to one another as "yids," the cops are called "noz," and throughout this absurdist tale of exile is the refrain "These are strange times to be a Jew." The novel is peppered with Yiddish idioms and slurs and caricatures, many of them historical references, some of them puzzling and (to this non-Jewish writer) borderline offensive. If it's hard to recognize the blurry line here between satire and tastelessness, Chabon's zeal for history -- for imagining a universe parallel to the past 50 years -- is incontrovertible, and there's heartbreak written all over it: Too many of Sitka's Jews, with their "vulcanized souls," were eventually "coopted, picked off, fattened up, set against one another, or defanged."

But too often Chabon's affections -- for the elegant enigmas of chess, for the modern tragedy of the Jews, for verbal acrobatics and literary shenanigans -- turn into a wild display of warring talents, compromising the structural integrity of the novel and turning its hair pin plot twists into a drive off a cliff. The noir novel, by definition, is lean and hard-edged, with dialogue that spills the goods without a comma in sight. Here, the conversations are eye-glazingly long -- witty but laborious, convoluted instead of gunmetal linear. Worse, they are simply not revealing in any emotional or psychological sense. Landsman is the one character depicted with any real depth -- the wound with the father is central to his being, as is an early anguish in his marriage -- but page by page, even he lacks the dimension and complexity he ought to have had. Bina is the tough-broad-with-heart-of-gold; Berko, the sidekick-savior partner. They're comic book characters, in other words, with snappy lines and a couple of tragedies and secrets to back them up.

Still, it's clear from the outset of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" that Chabon was passionately involved in the creation of this novel. Because he has a high-reaching imagination and sees the novel as a jungle gym for his ideas, he's envisioned a tale about eternal exile in a cloak of noir, a raucous story with dark realism at its core. "You make a deal, take what you can get, move on," thinks Landsman to himself at the end of the ride. "Get over it. So distant men in a sunny country have been lured into killing one another so that while their backs are turned, their sunny country can be boosted and fenced."

That's the kind of gritty realization hidden within the inner narratives of the novel, but there's far too much voluble embroidery around it. When Landsman finally meets his antagonist, the man confides that the events that led them to this day have long been out of their control: "The story, Detective Landsman, is telling us."

To its own misfortune, the same verdict applies to "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," which seems to have cuffed its author with a blackjack and taken over the wheel of the car.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at