I spend so much time dinging academic historians and their usually constipated prose that I’m obligated to call out an exception when it hits the shelves. This isn’t a definitive history of the city — it stops soon after the Louisiana Purchase, with the Battle of New Orleans as an epilogue — but, frankly, a complete recitation of NOLA during the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War, would fill a thick volume all its own. Instead Powell focuses on the 1700s, deftly explaining the events leading up to New Orleans’s improbable siting, followed by the convoluted real-estate scheming that shaped it (I like a writer who drops the word “autarky” into an economic discussion without feeling the need to explain it). Powell conducts his chorus so smartly that we can hear the echoes of those 18th-century voices today: the rise of nepotism (from a time when everybody in town really did know everybody else), corruption and disregard of the law (a reaction to mercantilism and a centralized state completely unresponsive to the city’s needs), lavish parties and displays of wealth (to create hierarchies in a world where everyone was sloughing off previous failures or humble origins to reinvent themselves), a rich African tradition (whites have always been a minority), and strong Francophile identity (a reflex against nearly 40 years of Spanish rule). Powell doesn’t overemphasize events either, which is always a peril for authors tempted to make A Point. The Accidental City is an accessible history of New Orleans’s haphazard beginnings.
There are bad books, which I’ve decided aren’t worth talking about anymore. There are mediocre books — ditto. There are good books, which are worth promoting, and then there are books that provoke me as a writer to say to myself, What the hell am I doing with my life? I’m a complete fuck-up. I’ll never be able to make something like this.
Michael Chabon and I started off on the wrong foot. The first book I read — or tried to read — of his was Manhood for Amateurs, which included a ridiculous chapter on Lego, followed by an equally obnoxious interview. Lack of enough synonyms for “awful” prevented me from scribbling a full review of the book; suffice to say Chabon is a better fiction writer than public intellectual. This experience scared me off his work. Then recently I read his alt-history “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” in the VanderMeers’ Steampunk anthology, which was wonderful enough for me to seek out The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I’m so glad I did.
Only after the last page did I learn the novel, a police procedural set in an alternate history wherein Israel was defeated in 1948, won a slew of awards, including the 2007 Sidewise. The first 11 chapters are very slow — he could’ve used a better hook — and Chabon’s cynicism runs more to the grotesque (people are defined by their deformities, by their fatness or dandruff or “larval white fingers”) than toward Chandler-esque wit. Still, Chabon has his moments:
The outer room holds a sleeper couch, a wet bar and mini-fridge, an armchair, and seven young men in dark suits and bad haircuts. The bed is folded away, but you can smell that the room has been slept in by young men, maybe as many as seven.
One is a black man and one a Latino, and the others are fluid pink giants with haircuts that occupy the neat interval between astronaut and pedophile scoutmaster.
For me, Union hit every right note: a brilliant noir in which a detective doggedly pursues a lone murder, only to uncover a greater conspiracy. There’s a very sweet love story too. But most of all, Chabon gets alternate history. It’s a setting. It’s not an atmosphere or a corseted costume or even a genre — it’s a time-space geography the characters inhabit and interact with. Can you tell I really liked this book?