Meeting Michael Chabon

Note:  Originally Published 5-24-07

About a year ago, Michael Chabon (who is, in my opinion, America’s greatest living author) had been scheduled to do a book signing at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago in order to promote his latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

One problem-the book got delayed for many different reasons.

That being said, the Chicago appearance obviously was cancelled, and I was devastated.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I was very disappointed.  Chabon is my literary hero, and I wanted to meet him terribly.

So several weeks ago, I discovered that with the novel coming out on May 1st of 2007, his appearance at the Harold Washington Library had been rescheduled for the 21st of May.  Well, after losing out last time, I knew I would always regret it if I let this opportunity pass.  I took a personal day from work, and Kristen and I made a trip out of it.

Monday night arrived and we made our way to the Harold Washington branch of the Chicago Public Library.  Neither of us had ever been there before, so after finding our way inside we asked a helpful security guard to direct us to the Michael Chabon signing.  She pointed us into the next room, and from there a staff member escorted us to a reserved elevator.  Had we not been with a few other anonymous Chabon fans I would have been a little unsettled by the strange proceedings. 

All was well, for when we got off the elevator we were immediately faced with multiple persons waiting in line to sign in and get their reserved tickets.  Luckily, my self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder served us well as we were nearly an hour early.  Even so, after receiving our ticket and entering the room he would actually be speaking in, we only got about a fourth of the way to his podium; all of the front seats had already been filled.

So, Kristen and I sat and waited.  I had a wonderful time listening to all of the conversations taking place around us as people discussed their favorite works of Chabon.  Several minutes passed and then, finally, I caught a glimpse of Michael Chabon coming from the front of the room and grabbing a seat in the first row. 

I seemed to be the only one who saw him!

I immediately wanted to scream, “There he is!” but, thankfully, my common sense prevailed and I instead grabbed my wife’s arm and whispered loudly, “There he is!”

What kind of fans were these?  No one seemed to even care he had entered the room!

Anyway, several of the event’s organizers gave their spiel and then they finally introduced Michael Chabon.  Just before he opened his mouth, I realized that all the trouble of taking the personal day and traveling to Chicago had totally been worth it.

Then he spoke.  (Man, I totally sound like a freakazoid stalker, don’t I?)

I won’t recount the entire talk and reading, but let me just say that this man is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.  This is a world-renowned author.  He is, in every conceivable way, a very big deal.  Best of all?  He was totally cool. 

I couldn’t believe the humility and warmth the man exuded!  He genuinely seemed like a nice guy, and that made me feel very good about touting him as our greatest living author.  So many times, people reach his stature and become-how should we put it?-arrogant.  Not so with him.  He cracked many jokes at his own expense, and when the audience put forth questions (some of them asinine in every sense of the word), he handled them with grace and respect.  The faulty microphone they gave to the questioners didn’t even faze him.  He was a class act, without a doubt.

When it came time for the actual book signing, our tickets all had a number on them.  Because five hundred people had showed up, they had us get in line by groups of fifty.  I was ninety-one and Kristen was ninety-three (don’t know how that happened), so we had to sit and wait for quite a while, which was fine.  We didn’t actually have to get in line in numerical order, but they have the first fifty people get in line, then the next fifty, and so on. 

My all-time favorite book by Chabon is called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (if you haven’t read it, leave your computer, get in your car, drive to your nearest bookstore, and purchase it immediately-I’ll wait for you to return … Back already?  Good, I’ll continue).  I realize it’s considered common courtesy to only have an author sign one or two items, so as much as I wanted to bring my entire Chabon collection up for him to sign, I limited myself to this favorite paperback of mine.  I gave my wife his latest release, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and we agreed she would have it signed specifically to me-first and last name.  (Yes, I’m that neurotic.)

As we got nearer, we saw that Chabon was taking his time with people, actually talking with them, and most surprising of all, he extended his hand to every single one of his fans before they even got directly in front of him!  The women in front of us had their books signed, and then one of them took out a camera and sheepishly started to ask if she could take his picture with her friend.  Before she could even finish, he was out of his seat and putting his arm around her friend, saying, “Sure, no problem!” 

I had been contemplating the words I would say to the man who inspires me on a regular basis.  I was prepared to discuss his themes, his many interests, and his impact upon both the literary world and pop-culture in general (after all, he’s appeared on The Simpsons).  I even had brought a spare copy of my own novel, fantasizing that I would give it to him, he would read it as he sat alone in his hotel room, then seek me out as a peer and we would keep in touch through correspondence for the rest of our days.

Instead, within the span of a minute and a half, I introduced my wife to him twice (no idea why), spat out something about Kavalier and Clay being my favorite book, and generally acted like an eight-year-old girl standing before Justin Timberlake.  My wife had a wonderful time laughing at the star-struck, babbling fool I had morphed into.

Be that as it may, I shook my hero’s hand, and he signed two books to me-to Scott Foley.  No matter what happens, no matter what becomes of me, for those few seconds he knew I existed and those books are proof of it.  Those books will always cement the fact that I met Michael Chabon, and he signed his work for me.  Our names will forever be linked.

Like I said, it was all totally worth it.

Man, I really do sound like a stalker.  I’m starting to creep myself out!  Oh, well, if you’re a literature fan, maybe you can relate.

On a final note (if you’re still reading this, you’re a saint), I’ve decided to reread The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  I usually don’t take the time to do such a thing, for there are far too many books I want to read and not nearly enough time to do so, but I rushed through the book so quickly I didn’t really savor it.  I compare it to wolfing down a meal without tasting any of the food.  I wanted to have the book finished before it was signed, but now I realize I didn’t focus on it enough in my haste.  Having met the man and listened to his personal thoughts on this book in particular, I think I’ll read it anew with a greater appreciation.

I tell you, when you find out your literary hero is a genuinely nice person, it just makes you feel all the better about following his career and trying to get anyone who will listen to read him as well.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

Okay, you’ve heard me say it before, so you can all say it with me now, “Michael Chabon is America’s greatest contemporary author.”

You should have that memorized pretty soon.

Funny story I have to share with you before I write this review.  I found out that Chabon was visiting my neck of the woods in Chicago soon after this book was released.  Well, there was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass me by.  I made sure to get up there to see him after some finagling. 

Because of this, I very much wanted to have the book done before I met him, just in case he wanted to invite my wife and me to coffee afterwards and discuss the merits of his work.  That being said, I madly rushed to get through The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  In fact, I read the last third of the book so quickly that I don’t think I processed it very well.

So when I felt a bit disappointed by it, I knew it was probably my own fault for not giving it the time it deserved.  More on that in a moment.

What?  You wanted a review?  Just humor me.

Chabon appeared at the Harold Washington in Chicago, and he could NOT have been a more down-to-earth, warm, funny, genuinely nice guy.  So many times, people of Chabon’s stature can get a bit … haughty.  Not him, though.  In fact, once he gave his talk and started signing books, I surprisingly got as nervous as a dog in a hotdog factory.  I had my favorite book of all time, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, ready for him to sign, and my wife had my copy of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at the helm.  I even went so far as to have a copy of my own book ready to hand to him for his entertainment.  Unfortunately, once I stood before him I turned into a complete idiot, introducing my wife twice and praising him with the vocabulary of a two-year-old.  He could not have been more polite, however, extending his hand without prompting and smiling the entire time.  When I walked away, I lamented my unstable nerves to my wife and realized I forgot to give him a copy of Souls Triumphant, but we both agreed that this man deserved all the praise I’d given him to anyone who would listen.  I feel very good about supporting both the man and his work.

But, because I knew I’d rushed through his book, I decided to do something I rarely do, and that’s immediately reread the novel.   

I’m glad I did.

I have such a better understanding after digesting it slowly and giving it the time it deserved.  Chabon crafted a book rife with characters that leap off the page, and possibly birthed one of my all-time favorite characters with his self-destructive detective, Meyer Landsman.  Once Landsman’s ex-wife and new boss, Bina, enters the action, the book really takes on a life of its own.  The witty, playful, tense, and strained banter between Meyer and Bina is worth the price of the book alone.

But, this book is about far more than the reintroduction of husband and wife.  This book also imagines an alternative world where the Jews were allowed to move to Alaska, filling a land they call the Federal District of Sitka, shortly after 1948.  However, their time is coming to an end as the land is about to revert back to the US and they are going to go … well, wherever they can find a spot.  No one is outside of the district is real concerned about helping them out.  This impending fact, coupled with the death of a man who is much more important than anyone in the police department initially thought, lays the groundwork of a story that is both fascinating and provoking.

I’m typically not one for a “mystery” story, and I’m not sure if this exactly qualifies as such, though I keep hearing people, including Chabon, refer to it as a “genre” piece.  However, let me tell you that I enjoyed this book so much better after the second read once I knew the ending and what to look for throughout.  There is a lot going on, and it is very much so deeply ingrained in the Jewish culture, so I was unknowingly lost the first time around.  After a second read it all made so much more sense!

Chabon is an expert at bringing dynamic characters to life, and while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union requires close attention, it certainly keeps up Chabon’s excellent status quo.