The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

(HarperCollins) $26.95

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon's alt-history noir, begins with the execution-style murder of an anonymous heroin junkie in the Hotel Zamenhof, a flophouse in which Detective Meyer Landsman resides. Landsman becomes fixated on the case and discovers that the junkie was Mendel Shpilman, an orthodox rabbi's disowned son—and also the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a potential messiah who could bestow blessings and perform miracles. And, also, he was gay. Oh, and did I mention that this is happening in the District of Sitka, an Alaskan interim settlement created for Jews in 1948 when the state of Israel collapsed, a settlement that, in mere weeks, would be reclaimed by the United States? (Pause for breath.)

The world that Chabon throws us into is rich and well-imagined and extremely Jewey. The writing is flavored with Yiddish slang—a policeman is a noz, a cell phone is a shofar, and every sentence is uttered with a Yid accent. Landsman is mostly a typical hard-boiled detective: alcoholic, obsessive, incapable of maintaining relationships—but at the same time, he's such a whiner! ("I wish you wouldn't have called my phone," Landsman says after a moment. "Better you should have let me die." Hi, Grandma!) The more he digs, the more intricate the mystery becomes; it's like a Dashiell Hammett book, except it's full of Orthodox-mafioso Jews, holy sacrifices, and international conspiracies involving the Temple in Jerusalem. DAVIDA MARION

After Dark

by Haruki Murakami

(Knopf) $22.95

What's that on the table over there? Why, it's After Dark, the new novel by Haruki Murakami. Let's go over and take a look at it—but how are we seeing it, how are we moving? It's as though we're looking at it through a camera, somehow, an imaginary camera that flies everywhere and spouts magically shallow ponderings about life, like this: "Is action merely the incidental product of thought, or is thought the consequential product of action?"


You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger Murakami fan than yours truly, but this book—written entirely in the style of the first paragraph of this review—is atrocious. The plot has something to do with a woman who hangs out in a Denny's late at night, Japanese love hotels, and a blandly struggling musician who falls in love with the aforementioned insomniac, but the plot isn't the point. The point is that Murakami somehow suddenly believes he's the second coming of Paulo Coelho, and the first one hasn't even finished cashing his paychecks yet. I hope After Dark is a single, horrendous misstep in Murakami's career, because if he starts to believe his own hype, this novel could signal the twilight of a truly brilliant literary mind. PAUL CONSTANT

Archaeology in Washington

by Ruth Kirk and Richard D. Daugherty

(University of Washington Press) $26.95

The opening chapter of Archaeology in Washington informs us that our state contains the remains of actions committed by humans 14,000 years ago. These men and women were a hungry people. They butchered a mastodon in the Olympic Peninsula, cooked with earth ovens in the Pend Oreille country, and hunted in the area that is now used to treat Seattle's raw sewage. Often, there's a lot of earth between the traces of early human hunger and us. Prehistorical human activities, desires, weapons, and bones have been buried by thousands of years of mudslides, forest life, and small and tremendous geological eruptions. The job of archaeologists is to remove this layer of earth that separates us from them, the long dead who were unfortunate enough to be born in a land that was so inhuman, so indifferent, so senseless.

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What's striking about the photographs in Archaeology in Washington—photographs of archaeological sites around the state—is not, however, the remains of the dead, but the bodies of the living scientists and students. Most of them appear to be young, and because they are digging up dirt all day, all month, all year, their bodies are in excellent shape. And because they often have to work in hot places, they wear as little as decency allows. These archaeologists are sexy.

Look at the cover of the book, look at the flesh of the woman in the foreground and the two young men in the depths of the excavation site: Their skin has been ripened and browned by the life-rich rays of the sun. Inside the book, you will find more images of young and bronzed beauties removing earth, shifting dirt, separating human from natural objects. A thousand years from now, this is whom we want to unearth and clean our dirty femurs and skulls: shapely archaeologists wearing tight, short pants. CHARLES MUDEDE