Michael Chabon’s first proper novel since his Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) rests on a wonderful counterfactual scenario, in which, you might say, Northern Exposure meets Fiddler on the Roof. In 1940, the U.S. government permits the settlement of Jewish refugees in Sitka, Alaska, and when the republic of Israel collapses in 1948, Congress creates the temporary, self-governing Federal District of Sitka for the benefit of “the Frozen Chosen.” It’s a grimly flourishing, Yiddish-speaking zone of shtarkers and schlemiels and shtinkers, a place with “no polar bears. No igloos. No reindeer. Mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog, and rain, and half a century of a [profound] sense of mistakenness.” It’s also where, on the gloomy eve of the district’s reversion to Alaska (when more than 3 million “yids” will be stateless once again), a nihilistic, alcoholic detective named Landsman investigates the murder of a chess-playing junkie genius—and enmeshes the reader in a blackly suspenseful, densely imagined yarn involving ultra-Orthodox gangsters, mystical shenanigans, and a vast right-wing conspiracy.
There’s no doubting the entertainment on offer here; but I could not help feeling tantalized, as I was zoomed along the hairpin plot, by glimpses of more lastingly nourishing fare. Dangling over this generic crime story are a fabulist’s profound concerns about the spiritual and political directions actually taken by Jews and, for that matter, by a United States touched by fanatical Christianity. It’s tricky, though, to reach for such offerings when you’re holding on to your hat.