Brian Jacobson

Michael Chabon at the Jewish Community Center’s Book and Culture Fair

By - Nov 19th, 2007 02:52 pm


Michael Chabon, author of Wonder Boys, 2001 Pulitzer-winner Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, acclaimed novella The Final Solution and most recently Gentlemen on the Road (a serialized story written for New York Times Magazine in 2007), was arguably the biggest-name Jewish writer out of many to appear at the JCC’s Book and Culture Fair in Whitefish Bay this November (see for details on remaining dates).

The 44-year-old California resident and frequent traveler drew a few hundred attendees, most likely attending to hear him read, as advertised, from his May-released potboiler The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which has been hailed as his best to date – and perhaps most controversial.

But instead the soft-spoken and blue-eyed man in a tweed jacket pulled a sheaf of papers from a folder and began to read loosely from a prepared speech. Instead, Chabon appeared to be seizing the chance to explain his tale to a mostly-Jewish audience. He defended a misunderstood essay he penned which appeared in the June 1997 issue of Civilization Magazine after Yiddish-speaking clubs and stalwarts took him to task and deftly (but not dismissively) handled audience questions about his “bad” characters in Yiddish Policeman’s Union, who appear to be Orthodox Jews.

The evening remained genial and gracious throughout. Chabon didn’t stray much from his early critical image as “a nice Jewish boy, so eager to please” as he relays to the crowd. But he also admits that his work remains provocative because of the equally subversive “devil inside [himself]” that writes things you aren’t supposed to talk about.

Yiddish Policeman’s Union imagines a Jewish province founded for refugees of World War II and eventually the 1948 Arab-Israeli Conflict. Just as various countries such as Uganda or Argentina were proposed by some early Zionists, then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes convinces Congress in this alternate universe to lend the panhandle of Alaskan Territories to the troubled population.

Chabon’s town of Sitka, Alaska is a cold, noir location, like something out of Raymond Chandler story. A long-time fan of genre fiction like mysteries, sci-fi, and comic books, Chabon has consistently created deep, hard-hitting characters. But while his prose and craft was praised when the book was first released, it was also dogged for its imagined proposal and treatment of characters.

Later Chabon stated that he wanted “to create a home in his imagination,” and that while he once shunned his background, he now seeks ways to explore and cherish it. Perhaps because of the setting, the evening’s talk was dominated with questions about Yiddish, Jewish statehood, and the culture in general. Any deep questions about character development, plot, and the writing process were relegated to short, superficial moments. It may be that the era of small talks with big authors on book tours has led to expectations of intimacy and thoroughness in discussion, but in this instance, just spending some time was fair enough. VS

Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Gentlemen of the Road are currently on sale at area booksellers in hardcover and trade paperback. The Milwaukee Jewish Community Center’s Book and Culture Fair concludes with three nights of author visits tonight (Jo Horne and Dr. Gary Guten at the Schwartz bookstore in Mequon), Wednesday Nov. 28 (Alana Newhouse at JCC) and Thursday Nov. 29 (Judith Viorst at JCC). Visit or call 414-964-4444 for details.

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