Thursday, June 07, 2007

When I saw on the cover of Jewish World Digest (June 2007) that Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was being reviewed in its pages, I quickly turned to page 52. Having just finished the book, I was excited to read what others had to say. While Goldie Goldbloom accurately touched on some of the positive points of the book, I was dismayed at several faux pas that she made as a reviewer.

I should point out my own biases and credentials. I’ve been following Chabon’s career since his The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was issued in trade paperback in 1988; I’ve been reviewing books for several magazines and newspapers for over a decade and am review editor for one magazine; I am a staunch defender of mystery/detective fiction as literature.

Ms. Goldbloom’s criticisms of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union can be boiled down to four complaints: 1. it wasn’t as good as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; 2. it was inaccurate; 3. it was “hard-boiled detective fiction” and not “literature”; and 4. the ending was “confusing and labored.” Goldbloom has her facts mostly straight, and she is, of course, entitled to her opinions. But as a reviewer she overstepped the line, being unfair to the book, its author, and most importantly, to her own readers. I’ll take each of her points in turn, and lastly will discuss the unforgivable sin of exposing the surprises of the novel.

First point: Goldbloom approached The Yiddish Policeman’s Union “hoping that Michael Chabon had finally pulled off another book of the caliber of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” but found “To my dismay, his new venture is no Kavalier and Clay.” This sounds a lot like the old man who bit into a banana and said, “This ain’t no apple.” Of course it’s not. It may be fair to compare the relative merits of two books from Robert Parker’s “Spenser” series. But no critic would try to evaluate Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row using the same criteria. Imagine how absurd it would sound if 17th century critics said of “Hamlet” that “it is no ‘Twelfth Night.’” Kavalier and Clay and Yiddish Policeman’s Union are not the same book. They’re not even the same genre. Comparing them is to compare apples and bananas.

In her opening paragraph, Goldbloom was also subtly critical of two of Chabon’s prior books, The Final Solution and Summerland. Of course, neither of these books was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But both are fine books in their own right. Summerland in particular I found to be a delightful and engaging young adult fantasy adventure that was hardly “overloaded” and involved a lot more than “baseball and fairies.” I would highly recommend that book to anyone, old or young, male or female, Jew or Gentile, but particularly to any man aged 8 to 80 who has ever felt like an outsider.

Point two: Goldbloom tells us that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is unlikely and “is studded with errors.” “If that wasn’t enough of a stretch,” she tells us after describing the criminal activities of the Verbover Hassidim in the novel, “the setting for this novel is a fictitious Jewish homeland called Sitka.” Of course it’s a stretch, Goldie. That’s why it’s called “fiction.”

Without bothering to point out the various very real cases of money laundering, smuggling, and mob ties engaged by ultra-Orthodox movements, I would remind Goldbloom that Theodore Herzl explored many settlement options for his “Jewish State” that included Uganda and Argentina. The ITO, led by Israel Zangwill (a mystery novelists, I should note), in 1903 sought to establish a Jewish homeland wherever it could, be it Australia, Asia, or Galveston, Texas. (These were all real considerations). The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was established in Eastern Russia (not too far from Sitka) and still exists to this day! I’m grateful that the 1948 War of Israel’s Independence turned out the way it did. But it is a fiction writer’s job to ask “What If?”

Goldbloom is concerned that Chabon refers to a wig as a shaydel rather than a shaitel, and that Jews are called Yids rather than Yidden. As an expert in the language, I’m sure Goldbloom knows that Yiddish is such a vibrant language precisely because of its suppleness and its ability to evolve. The Yiddish of Goldbloom’s Galitzianers differs in vocabulary and pronunciation from the Yiddish of Vilna, Odessa, Berlin, the Lower East Side, and I would presume, of Sitka, Alaska.

Point three: Goldbloom ends her review by telling us, “I am sorry to say it read far more like pot-boiler than literature.” I’ll admit: this is the criticism that set my pot a-boiling. Historically, the term “pot boiler” refers to hack-writing, fiction that is slapped together quickly, according to a set formula, intended brain-candy for the masses and a quick source of cast for the creator. I don’t think anyone would suggest Chabon is guilty of any of these things. If Goldbloom wants to call The Yiddish Policeman’s Union a work of genre fiction, I say bring it on. Genre may be shorthand used by publishers and booksellers to categorize, shelve, and market books. But the detective fiction genre is one that I am proud to celebrate.

Far from being the hack-writing that literary snobs condescendingly accuse it of being, detective fiction may be the last vestige of writing that still observes the principles of Aristotle’s Poetics. Unlike a lot of high literature, mystery novels have beginnings, middles, and endings and a plot that takes the reader from one end to the other in an interesting and entertaining manner. Mystery and detective fiction (I use the terms interchangeably) begin with a problem and end with a solution. Like the creation story in Genesis, they begin with chaos and end with order. One needn’t look farther than the novels of Laura Lippman, Reed Farrel Coleman, or Stuart Kaminsky (particularly his “Leiberman” books), to find beautiful writing, profound depth of human experience and moral struggle, and Judaic themes woven into detective story plots. The books of these authors are pot-boilers only in the sense that readers actually enjoy reading them.

Point four: “The greatest weakness of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, however, is the confusing and labored ending.” I’m not sure Ms. Goldbloom and I were reading the same book. Did I find ambiguity in the ending? Yes. Did the ending leave me with a certain political discomfort? Sure, in fact, the whole novel did. That’s the sign of good literature. But was it labored or confusing? As a detective story, all the crimes were clearly resolved; the final one brilliantly. But I think, in a subtle way, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was more a story of love and redemption than one of crime solving. And in the end, Meyer Landsman found both love and redemption in a tender, touching, and quiet fulfillment of the novel’s promise.

Having responded to Goldbloom’s four criticisms, I have one final concern about her review of Chabon’s novel. The review spoiled the experience of the book for anyone who hasn’t read it by exposing several of the major surprises and plot twists of the book. I recall coming out of a movie theater in 1973, having just watched “The Sting,” the new film with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and still reeling from the surprise ending. A joker several yards in front of me yelled to the long queue of theater-goers lined up to buy tickets, “Hey, at the end they aren’t really ____!” I felt the same reaction when I read Goldbloom’s fourth paragraph, in which she spills all of the surprises of the first half of the book. What’s more, the editors of Jewish World Review used that spoiler as a pull quote!

I wish Goldie Goldbloom the best. She writes well and I sense that she has a good eye for literature. I don’t think she wrote “A Yiddisher Cop and an Argentine Elegy” with any malice intent. My goal is not to convert mystery-bashers into fans. I would only hope that Ms. Goldbloom, the editors of Jewish World Review, and anyone who would consider reviewing a book to remember that the purpose of a book review is neither to ridicule a book not to show how clever we are, but to share enough thoughtful information about the book to allow readers to decide for themselves whether the book merits their time.