Picks, pans, and peculiarities

Culture | Reviews: A fanciful portrait of Alaska and two fanciful attacks on Christianity

Issue: "All's fair at the fair," Aug. 25, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)

Michael Chabon's latest literary effort is as difficult to classify as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his Pulitzer Prize--winner about comic books and the Holocaust. It is a quirky combination of noir thriller, religious-cultural reflection, and alternative history.

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The setting is a fanciful modern-day Alaska, populated with displaced European Jews after the United States took FDR's suggestion to establish a refuge there for Holocaust escapees. We also learn, in brief asides, that an atomic bomb destroyed Berlin and the Zionists were routed in Palestine. Rather than squabbling with Arabs, the Jews now dispute borders with Tlingit Indians. All of this can be disorienting at first, since Chabon doesn't show his cards. Characters simply appear on the tundra and start kvetching.

But the story is pulled forward briskly by a murder mystery, which involves a chess puzzle. The victim is rumored to be the Messiah, and detective Meyer Landsman-a cynical atheist among religious zealots-must track both his killer and his Apocalypse-plotting disciples. This gives the novel a narrative thrust, and a seriousness about religious and political questions, that Kavalier & Clay lacked. (Warning: some bad language.) A sub-theme involves sons struggling with their fathers and faith. In its strange way, this inventive, page-turning novel is mixed up with both. -Ethan Campbell

Broadway sensation: Spring Awakening

Since big winners on Broadway eventually enter the repertoire of touring troupes and even high schools, the success this year of Spring Awakening-winner of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical-is worth noticing. A talented cast, innovative direction, and a contemporary rock score with moments of breathtaking beauty and heartbreak accompany a pointed message: Reject Christianity and all moral constraints.

Spring Awakening focuses on a group of teens fumbling through adolescence and facing parents and teachers who embody a harsh and judgmental Christianity. The teens reject pat answers and blind faith, embrace their burgeoning sexual desires, and-after encountering violence, abortion, perversion, and suicide-end up united with adults as they sing of their longing for freedom. (Warning: sexual situations and profanity.)

What many audience members don't know is that the Christianity portrayed on stage is not real Christianity, but a legalistic and intolerable caricature of the faith lacking any understanding of grace.

What teen wouldn't chafe under these conditions? Lacking a true biblical understanding of sexuality, they experience nothing but contempt and loathing for it. Despite its metaphoric imagery of the youthful bloom of adolescence, Spring Awakening is false advertising. -Henry Bleattler

Deer Hunting with Jesus

by Joe Bageant (Crown)

Joe Bageant, a self-described "working-class leftist," can turn a funny phrase ("Never eat cocktail weenies out of the urinal no matter how big the bet gets") and bring Southern nostalgia crisply to life ("the wild meat smell of a deer hanging under a porch lightbulb on a snowy night"). But his main goal, sadly, is polemical: America is waging a class war, in which corporations, Republicans, Fox News, fundamentalists, and other boogeymen (OPEC and the Federal Reserve? Why not?) are conspiring against Joe Sixpack.

Some of his tirades, like those against predatory lenders, are on target. But Bageant can't decide whether he wants to mock regular workers or valorize them. His attack on Christian conservatives suffers from ignorant hostility toward homeschoolers and Bible colleges, and from tired accusations of "theocracy" and racism. (Warning: some profanity.)

Bageant wishes that religion would stay "in its rightful place, personal and intimate-not political." Readers might wish the same of his next memoir. -Ethan Campbell

The reviewers are professors at The King's College


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