Our hero is Detective Meyer Landsman, a classic hard-boiled loose cannon supercop with “the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is a crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket.” True to the hard-boiled formula, he enters the novel thoroughly spent: a 44-year-old workaholic and alcoholic, wrecked by the memory of his chess-addicted father’s suicide, his sister’s mysterious death, a heartbreaking abortion and a divorce—all of which has left him a cynic in a world of true believers: “To Landsman, heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery.”
Landsman stumbles onto a murder that taps into the molten core of international Jewish politics, and he’s helped and opposed by a colorful cast of characters: his ex-wife, Bina, a by-the-book ball-breaker; his partner, Berko, the human embodiment of Indian-Jewish conflict; Inspector Willie Dick, an anti-Semitic Tlingit midget on a ¾-size motorcycle (“Jews mean bullshit,” he says. “A thousand laminated layers of politics and lies buffed to a high sheen”); Zimbalist, the ancient “boundary maven” in charge of tying and maintaining the District’s sacred eruvs (his pants are “stained with egg yolk, acid, tar, epoxy fixative, sealing wax, green paint, mastodon blood”). And Mendel Shpilman, chess genius and alleged messiah.
The novel’s central mystery hinges on a chess problem that was designed, Chabon tells us in the acknowledgments, by Vladimir Nabokov—and like the Russian puzzlemaster, Chabon seems to be trying, entertainingly, to push vivid prose to its natural limit. His sentences are clean and cocky and loaded and at least as entertaining as the mystery itself. He lavishes incredible, almost impractical care on each little unit of description—characters who are barely even characters get identifying characteristics (a totally inconsequential limo driver is “a jockey-shaped Filipino with a scar on his chin like a second smile”). Chabon can be lyrical (“The wind jerks the snowflakes back and forth on its hundred hooks”), understated (“Half an hour out of Yakovy, Landsman decided to spice up their journey with a judicious application of vomit”), and aphoristic (“Every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve”). He’s totally, blissfully addicted to metaphor: Landsman’s ex-wife “accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken.” A pretentious, overly formal journalist speaks Yiddish “like a sausage recipe with footnotes.” An awkward father-son hug “looked like the side chair was embracing the couch.” A female bodyguard speaks “in a voice like an onion rolling in a bucket.” (Her laugh sounds like “someone jumping up and down on a leather valise.”) In a crowded apartment, two babies are “stashed away on the balcony like disused skis.” Rain is “tossed in vandalistic handfuls at the windshield.” A salmon is an “aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home.” “A woodpecker rattles its cup of dice.” I’m struggling not to quote half the book. There is, of course, much to be said for writing that doesn’t work so hard to be vivid—that ignores entertainment value in favor of hard truth, or, like Beckett, radically expands our notions of what might count as entertainment. But there’s also much to be said for this kind of writing, and you can’t do it much better than Chabon has here.