The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
My father in law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and several years ago he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 1980s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite essayists, New Yorker staffer and renowned baseball writer Roger Angell.The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor, but when I listened to the tapes, I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, a former economics professor at NYU who died in 2004. Ritter was also a big baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years, Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s oldest living veterans, men who played in the decades leading up to and after World War I. The result, first published in 1966 and updated and expanded in 1984, is among the most cherished baseball books around.With the baseball season hitting its sweet spot, I cracked the spine of my tattered copy of Ritter’s compilation, and what I found within was a look into a lost period of time – before radio, before TV, and before even the prevalence of still cameras – brimming with color about the game’s rough beginnings as America’s national pastime.To give just a sample of the gems contained within the Glory of Their Times, this is what I learned reading Fred “Snow” Snodgrass’ chapter, a representative sample of the sorts of details in the book that are sure to amaze any fan of today’s game:Christy Mathewson “never pitched on Sunday, or even dressed in uniform,” but “he made a good part of his expenses every year playing poker.”Snodgrass wore a baggy uniform to try to increase the chances of getting hit by pitches, and, failing that, he would dive for the ground on an inside pitch and pinch his arm to raise a welt so he could show the ump where he got “beaned.”There was more than one deaf and dumb ballplayer during this era, and, judging by this book, they were all nicknamed “Dummy.” Dummy Taylor, who played on the Giants with Snodgrass, “took it as an affront if you didn’t learn to converse with him,” and consequently everyone on the team learned sign language.A mysterious man named Charles Victory Faust emerged from the stands before a game in 1911 and told the Giants that a fortune teller had told him that if he pitched for the team, they would win the pennant. Superstitious manager (and baseball legend) John McGraw took Faust on the road with the team, and “every day from that day on, Charles Victory Faust was in uniform and he warmed up sincerely to pitch that game.” Of course, he never actually pitched, but the Giants did win the pennant in 1911. Faust joined them again in 1912, and again the Giants won the pennant. By 1913, Faust had become a fan favorite and McGraw let Faust come in and pitch an inning, much to the fans’ delight. Needless to say, the Giants won the pennant again in 1913.In 1908 Fred Merkle lost the pennant for the Giants because of a famous, “bonehead” play. He was on first and Moose McCormick on third in the bottom half of the ninth inning in a 1-1 ballgame against the Cubs in the last week of the season. Al Bridwell hit a single to center and McCormick scored from third. The fans rushed the field and Merkle sprinted to the clubhouse to avoid the madness – without stepping on second. Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (of the famous Tinkers, Evers, Chance infield) noticed this, found the ball in the crowd, got in a tussle with the Giants third base coach, tagged second base for the force out, and then convinced the umps to come back out onto the field to reconsider the play. The umps overturned the win, ruling in the Cubs favor.There was a rumor that as a nervous habit, Phillies pitcher Harry Coveleski, “always carried some bologna in his back pocket and chewed on that bologna throughout the game.”In 1914, the Boston Braves went from last place on July 4th to contending for the pennant by season’s end. Interest in the team was so great that “they put ropes up in the outfield and thousands of people were sitting and standing and standing behind the ropes, right on the playing field.”Snodgrass, playing the outfield, got into a shouting match with the Boston fans, and the incensed mayor of Boston got out of his box seat and marched onto the field and demanded that the umps remove Snodgrass from the game.There is a sense that the modern game has lost much of its charm, that it is all spectacle. The game 100 years ago was certainly charming, but, as The Glory of Their Times makes clear, it was perhaps more the spectacle back then, a game of colorful characters and nicknames, brawls and backroom dealings, and fights over money with capricious owners. Some things just don’t change. It’s also true that for a game that we seemingly know so much about, the book shows just how little we know about professional baseball’s formative days.Ritter’s amazing chronicle of the early years of baseball is essential for anyone with a deep interest in the game.
Near the start of The Flame Alphabet, we find the novel’s narrator fretting over the falseness of narrative. The protagonist, Sam, is part put-upon husband, part picaresque everyman. Most of all, though, he’s a storyteller; one of those “reliable narrators” of old-fashioned literary lore. Keen to set the scene, Sam’s on the lookout for novelistic “motifs,” and maybe even “a fine bit of foreshadowing.” But reality falls far short of such bookish ambitions. “What is it called when the landscape mirrors the condition of the poor fucks who live in it?” he wonders. “Whatever it is, it was not in effect.” This calls to mind Samuel Beckett’s aside, mid-description: ‘to hell with all this fucking scenery.’ What’s at stake in both cases is more than merely a rhetorical reflection on the rift between life and literature. With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits.
Ben Marcus’ earlier books – especially his debut, The Age of Wire and String – expressed much the same thing by foregrounding their formal experimentation. Yet the marvel of The Flame Alphabet is that it reads in an even more artfully alien way, with no fragmentation of form at all. The energy of the book is entirely embedded in narrative action; in content. Put simply, Marcus has managed to craft a story so disturbing that it’s best told with absolute clarity. The plot occurs in a parallel world whose place names echo our own (New York; Wisconsin) yet whose social reality quickly, queasily slips outside of any recognizable frame of reference. Sam, Claire, and their daughter Esther are an “ordinary” Jewish family, settled in an eerily serene suburban setting straight out of The Twilight Zone. This is B-movie blank canvas suburbia; the sort of place whose existence dictates that something is about to go wrong. And go wrong it does. The children (Jews first, then Gentiles) contract a condition that infects their speech. In other words, their words become toxic. While they remain healthy, their verbal vectors sicken their parents. Soon all adults fall ill, families collapse, quarantines are called, and the infection spreads so far that any form of spoken or written language is rendered “off-limits.”
Likening language to a virus is an old Burroughsian trope, of course, but in Burroughs it’s basically just a routine; a clever abstraction. Marcus makes it more forcefully, hurtfully concrete. Indeed, his creation of a fully immersive fictional world (as opposed to a formal experiment) allows him to take a real emotional toll on his readers. After all, a life without language would be one of harrowing sadness. Deep down, then, The Flame Alphabet is less about linguistics than the decay of relationships, the fracturing of familial loyalties, and the everyday heartbreak of human estrangement. All of this is affectingly drawn by Marcus – particularly the teenage Esther’s alienation from her parents, a painfully familiar part of any family drama, viral or not.
But while Marcus’ transparent narrative is supple enough to capture such subtleties, it also enables events to acquire a terrifying immediacy. Those events often are truly shocking; among several stomach-churning scenes, one involving a surgical needle cries out for adaptation by Cronenberg. On a more metaphysical level, we can note that this is a world which goes on getting worse – which is, like a nightmare, both believably realistic and, as Sam puts it at one point, “impossible.” Think of the revelation of the world’s unreality at the end of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Think, too, of the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s uneasy feeling that “the real world cannot be true.” This unreal realism, a background hum of incredulous horror, is what fans the flames of The Flame Alphabet. As Sam says, “we should have known that whatever we couldn’t imagine was exactly what was coming next.”
Sure enough, the story only gets stranger. Soon it turns out that Sam and Claire aren’t “ordinary” Jews at all. They’re “Forest Jews,” members of a far-fetched mystery cult. The two of them worship alone in a hut in the woods, listening in on an “underground signalling mechanism” by means of a biomechanical “Moses Mouth.” There’s a dense web of allusions at work here. The notion of a network of subterranean tunnels is deeply engrained in both urban legend and folklore. Then there are echoes, as well, of the paranoid narrative stylings of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Two points are worth taking away from this. Firstly, for Marcus the Forest Jews figure a non-toxic form of communication. Far from viral, their sermons are secret, hermetic, “necessarily private” – they’re underground in both the literal and the cultural sense, like when we speak of an “underground scene.” Secondly, the entire extended metaphor perfectly represents the world of The Flame Alphabet. It’s a world that takes its cue from our own, along with most of its content. Yet that content is skewed into odd new shapes by the novel’s mythology. Every object and every occurrence accrues its own mythic resonance, such that reality is restructured in line with (to borrow from Vladimir Propp) the “morphology of the folktale.”
History is similarly mythologized. The book’s back-story posits prophetic references to the virus in everyone from Augustine to Pliny, but it’s all fabricated, as if by “someone reaching back into history, rearranging the parts with a filthy hand.” Famous linguists Sapir and Whorf crop up as well, in the context of a crazed experiment that could never have happened. And Marcus’ mad scientist villain, LeBov, is presumably named in homage to William Labov, the still-living founder of sociolinguistics. LeBov himself is more myth than man, veiled in a shifting disguise of pseudonyms and split personalities. Vague mentions of “the LeBovs” hint that there’s more than one of him; in fact, he’s been made in the image of a mish-mash of fictional archetypes. Not least, he’s partly a play on a James Bond supervillain – he even has his own secret hideout, a shady scientific facility called “Forsyth.” In the world of The Flame Alphabet, LeBov was the first to theorize the contagion – for him communication per se is “the primary allergy, allergen zero.” But unlike the underground Jews, his antidote is not one of apophasis, mystical silence. Rather, he wants to extract from the earth a sort of ur-language; an original, incorruptible common tongue. Hence, deep inside Forsyth he fixates on a hole in the ground (recalling Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger), probing it with weird, jerry-rigged listening devices.
So we could say that The Flame Alphabet explores two solutions to linguistic crisis: firstly, religious reticence, and secondly a scientific search for origins. Yet there is also a third, artistic alternative: the creation of an entirely new form of language from scratch. By the book’s second half, Sam has been wrenched from his family and put to work in LeBov’s laboratory. Here he’s tasked to develop and test his own avant-garde alphabets. But his search for a non-toxic system of symbols drives him to ever more desperately delicate measures:
I created white text on white paper, gray on gray, froze water into text-like shapes and allowed it to melt on select surfaces – slate, wood, felt – which it scarred so gently, you’d need a magnifying glass to spot the writing… I tried pointillizing type, whitening it or darkening it, making a scattered dust of it on the page, then blowing that dust free with a bellows until it could only be read under blue light…
If the point of this passage is to dramatize the difficulties of working with language, perhaps it also reveals a self-reflective, writerly subtext. After all, isn’t Sam’s trial almost a model of that of most modern novelists? One challenge faced by writers these days is, as T.S. Eliot put it, to “purify the dialect of the tribe” – or at any rate to replenish language’s freshness, in the face of its exhaustion through everyday usage. The Flame Alphabet stages a scenario where language is literally “off-limits,” but isn’t our own world one in which words no longer mean what they’re meant to? Where any sincerely meant “meaning” seems on the brink of slipping into cliché? In this respect, surely our language is out of reach too; our writing worn down, our speech obsolete. Marcus has sometimes shied away, shrewdly, from using the word “experimental” to describe his own writerly style. Yet if his protagonist, Sam, is in some sense a writer-by-proxy, it’s not insignificant that he should be placed in a lab (of all places!) working on what, in a way, is an exemplary literary experiment. Critics like Mark McGurl have remarked that craft shades into technique, or “technicity,” in some subfields of post-war American letters. A technocratic cult of technique, and an ethos of “experimentalism” – these are arguably part of a cultural dynamic that’s gone some way toward shaping the cutting edge of contemporary fiction. Whatever it all means, such themes do seem expertly condensed in the image of Sam crafting his alphabets: the writer reinventing the word in a literary laboratory.
But maybe I’m misreading Marcus, or rather, reading too much into him. It’s easy to ask a richly symbolic book like The Flame Alphabet to furnish us with all sorts of subtexts, yet the basic question of what the book means may turn out to be somewhat more slippery. What gives it its strength is that, in one sense, it’s densely, unsettlingly meaningful – while, in another, it remains enigmatically silent whenever we search it for some sort of “message.” This isn’t a book that delivers a didactic payload; instead, it quietly builds up an aura of strangeness around itself. How does it pull off this artistic trick? It’s a complicated accomplishment, but it could come down to a matter of style.
Anyone who’s read Marcus’ friend (and Columbia colleague) Sam Lipsyte will be aware of a trademark Lipsytian trait: in a book like The Ask, an unfolding argument acquires literary force and thickness by being embedded in a finely-tuned stylistic system. This system seems to be driven by the coining of particular words and proper names that are peculiar to the world of the novel, and that any description of that world will then refer back to. That is to say, Lipsyte’s narratives always take care to touch base with their own emblematic inventions. In The Ask, one example would be the authorial act of naming a character “Vargina.” The first time we see this, it’s (apart from being funny) jarringly strange; it’s alienating, in the sense of Viktor Shklovsky’s ideal literary estrangement – what he called “östranenie.” Yet once we’re immersed in its imaginative context, the term is repeated so many times (each repetition furthering our immersion) that it makes perfect sense: it’s part of a closed circle of signs, a private language that we, the book’s readers, are privy to.
I think The Flame Alphabet proceeds by means of a strikingly similar method. But, in Marcus, it’s pushed to a bizarre and beautiful breaking point. As with Lipsyte’s fictions, when reading this novel we enter a “world” by being pulled into a pact with its highly particular language. Yet where Lipsyte’s literary landscape is realistically sociological, Marcus’ is more like a mad anthropologist’s fantasy: our own world made over in the mode of misremembered myths and fairy tales. It’s no coincidence that Aesop’s Fables crop up toward the end of The Flame Alphabet. As Lee Rourke has recently argued, these archaic yarns could be read as “blueprints for our entire literary tradition.” What Marcus does is rewind literary history, recover those blueprints, and put them to perverse new uses. He borrows the terms of existing traditions and translates them into a tongue for which they were never intended. In this way that technique of “estrangement,” of stylistic disorientation, is brought to a boil and kept simmering, always perched on the brink of becoming bewilderingly extreme.
Thus, a bit like Lipsyte’s books, and perhaps even more like the gnomic late works of Beckett, The Flame Alphabet can be read as a self-contained structure of signs, which only make sense when they’re seen from inside that structure. If we follow Ferdinand de Saussure, we could even claim that the book itself is a language: not an innately “meaningful” thing, more like a machine for making meaning. And this claim might be as close as we’ll come to figuring out The Flame Alphabet. In the end, Sam’s fantastical story doesn’t really mean anything in the sense of “referring” to something that makes it intelligible. This isn’t a “big book” with “something to say.” It’s one that wants to be left alone to conduct what Marcus would call its “smallwork” – subtly constructing its own inner life from the scraps of half-familiar symbols. In so doing, it doesn’t convey a definite meaning so much as a deeper, stranger sensation of meaning: how meaning “means” to begin with. Louis Sass has described how some schizophrenic patients, when confronted with a Rorschach card, don’t interpret the inkblot (“this is a horse”) but instead give a concrete account of its makeup (“this is a piece of cardboard with ink on it”). In the same way, Marcus burrows beneath the fabric of fiction to get at its grammar, which isn’t a set of rules but something more wild, freewheeling, and primitive. The meaning of The Flame Alphabet is what the philosopher C.K. Ogden once called “the meaning of meaning.” Unreal yet real, unknowable but totally tangible: this is the territory that Ben Marcus takes us to.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
It should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon, with his latest novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, has delivered a high concept work of genre fiction. That’s par for the course for Chabon. More broadly speaking, Union’s detective novel form will be familiar, but Chabon has made it his own by superimposing the story on a rewritten history, one in which the world’s Jewish population was offered a temporary homeland in Alaska following World War II. The conceit is taken from a plan that was actually floated in the late 1930s but never actually went anywhere.But though Chabon has crafted an entire alternate universe to explore, one that seemed to me would be rich with narrative possibilities when I first heard about the book, he uses it instead as little more than backdrop for a detective story of fairly straightforward construction. Not unlike bustling Bangkok provides the colorful backdrop for John Burdett’s mystery novels, not unlike Michael Connelly’s L.A. or George Pelecanos’ D.C. As with many detective novels, both well-crafted and pulp, it is the setting that sets Union apart.Though more ambitious conceptually than his previous work, Union isn’t exactly new territory for Chabon. His Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay invents The Escapist, a superhero that captures the public consciousness during the 20th century alongside Superman and Batman. While that’s not as impressive an imaginative feat as moving a whole people to the snowy hinterland, it frees Chabon to take his readers from Prague to New York City with a memorable interlude in Antarctica. Kavalier & Clay spans decades and incorporates the century’s wars and social movements. In Union we are stuck in the crumbling neighborhoods of Sitka, where a dull grayness follows the action. Through fog, snow, and grime our hero Detective Meyer Landsman plods in his pursuit of a murderer.In many ways Landsman is cut from a familiar “hard-boiled” mold. He is divorced, borderline alcoholic, and living in a fleabag hotel. Though ostensibly washed up, Landsman is preternaturally good at what he does, and Landsman’s nearly superhuman powers of observation allow Chabon to unleash a flurry of descriptors and minutia upon every character we meet. “His herringbone trousers are stained with egg yolk, acid, tar, epoxy fixative, sealing wax, green paint, mastodon blood.” “His skin is as pale as a page of commentary. His hat perches on his lap, a black cake on a black dish.” Elsewhere, the prose is peppered with Yiddish, the preferred tongue of Jewish Alaska.Landsman isn’t all hard bitten though. He seems to swing between bravado and self-pity. After Landsman is made aware of a murder that his occurred in his hotel, the murder that is the crux of the book’s plot, he must investigate a tunnel leading from the basement, and Chabon takes the opportunity to lay out Landsman’s internal contradictions:Landsman is a tough guy in his way, given to the taking of chances. He has been called hard-boiled and foolhardy, a momzer, a crazy son of a bitch. He has faced down shtarkers and psychopaths, been shot at, beaten, frozen, burned. He has pursued suspects between the flashing walls of urban firefights and deep into bear country. Heights, crowds, snakes, burning houses, dogs schooled to hate the smell of a policeman, he has shrugged them all off or he has functioned in spite of them. But when he finds himself in lightless or confined spaces, something in the animal core of Meyer Landsman convulses. No one but his ex-wife knows it, but Detective Meyer Landsman is afraid of the dark.Landsman is, indeed, afraid of the dark, but the darkness is just another demon that haunts him, like the break up of his marriage to Inspector Bina Gelbfish (who has recently become Landsman’s boss), and the death of his sister Naomi.But whatever clinical diagnosis fits the brooding Landsman, this book is not a character study, it is a mystery novel. Initially, the dead man appears to be an anonymous junkie, but, as if to justify Chabon’s alternate universe, the conspiracy that surrounds the death only grows until we see its global implications.This all dovetails with the overarching predicament of the Alaskan Jews. Their settlement up north was never meant to be permanent, and now, in the present day, political machinations have led to the impending “Reversion” that will set them wandering once again.It was this conceit that had me salivating for this book, but instead Union amounts to a 432-page detective story, colorful and filled with dazzling prose, but weighed down by a clunky plot that schleps along and attempts to live up to Chabon’s grand premise.