There's a sequence in Hearts of Darkness where Francis Ford Coppola says that his biggest fear is to make a movie with sweeping ambition that misfires, because then all you have is a long, pompous, shitty movie that fails the grand ideas you care about.
Apocalypse Now worked out pretty well. The Yiddish Policemen's Union doesn't. It's an overlong, exhausting grind, with one plodding sequence after another, no memorable characters, and hard-boiled dialog that feels more like a test of will than a creative flourish.
The premise is that, in 1948, Europe's Jews converge in a protectorate in Sitka, Alaska. Zionism didn't work out as planned. The U.S. offers Sitka instead. Instead of Israel, a couple of million Jews settle into Alaska, where they receive quasi-nationhood. The deal isn't permanent, though, and in the present-day setting of the book, Sitka is about to revert to U.S. possession, and its inhabitants are about to become exiles.
The book tries to be a hard-boiled murder mystery to boot. The lead character is a detective named Meyer Landsman. He's a divorced alcoholic. He works with his ex-wife. One day a junkie is found dead in the residential hotel where Landsman lives, and what ensues is 350 pages of leaden prose. First we get a tour of chess fanatics, and then Landsman's investigation focuses on the Verbovers, an isolated millennialist sect that he thinks was involved in the murder.
All of this sounds promising enough, but Michael Chabon lived out Coppola's nightmare. He's written a book that fails on almost every level. Landsman is not a likable protagonist, but worse, he's not believable as a person. Neither is anyone else. The plot is smaller than the sum of its parts. It fails as a murder mystery. It's written with a leaden prose, presumably intended to mimic Dashiell Hammett and his generation. Instead, the language is exhausting.
Chabon establishes the Sitka polity effectively, and he gets credit for his premise. The book's most difficult trick was probably to establish a credible state-within-a-state comprised entirely of resettled Alaskan Jews, and he pulled that off. But Landsman's personal melodramas and the endless circus of his murder investigation obscure his larger points about political and cultural identity. He fell so in love with his genre that he lost track of his bigger ambitions.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seems to be one of the best-loved books in the past 10 years. I see it on a shelf in every apartment. It was a good book that peaked halfway through and gasped out to its conclusion. Wonder Boys was one of the rare instances where the movie was better than the book, which, like Policemen's Union, was too often sidetracked by dead-end set-pieces (there was the whole bit with the dead snake) and an oddly self-satisfied tone.
Policemen's Union is a huge disappointment, and it kind of hurts. I've heard Chabon on Fresh Air and read interviews with him. He's enthusiastic and unpretentious, a real book person, someone I like and want to root for. Novelists and musicians, I try to give the benefit of the doubt. It takes a certain amount of courage to put yourself on the line this way. When I don't like a book or an album, I'm usually content to assume that the chemistry wasn't right for me and hope that other people will appreciate it differently.
But Michael Chabon is not an obscure struggling writer, and Policemen's Union isn't merely uneven. It is painfully bad.