What Up, Holmes?


Is there a more exuberant American prose writer than Michael Chabon? Literary without being forbidding, Chabon is perhaps the major American writer most in love with storytelling mechanics, with getting characters into and out of scrapes, tight corners, tops of buildings. It’s fitting, then, that in his new novella, The Final Solution, Chabon presents as protagonist the literary figure with perhaps the greatest insight into the stratagems of narrative design.

In a move that would make Borges proud, Chabon springs the 89-year-old Sherlock Holmes (referred to only as “the old man”) out of retirement in 1940s England to solve a mystery—not of a murder, but of the disappearance of a German-speaking parrot stolen from a mute Jewish refugee boy. At once an ingenious, fully imagined work, an expert piece of literary ventriloquism, and a mash note to the beloved boys’ tales of Chabon’s youth, The Final Solution is a major minor work that will come to be seen as a hinge piece in the development of Chabon’s art.

If The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) marked a magic leap forward for Chabon, it is because the author—akin to Philip Roth in his extraordinary America trilogy—found a way to pin his great themes to the wheel of history. Kavalier & Clay kept threatening to explode into violence, into tragedy, yet by temperament the author seemed incapable of writing music in that key. Buoyant as a hot-air balloon, the prevailing spirit of that Pulitzer Prize winner was optimism, zeal, generosity. That exuberance—the delight in physical detail, the lapidary descriptions, the unconditional love of character—is still in place, but this is the darker work: Sherlock solves his case, but doesn’t begin to grasp what lies beyond.

Resurrecting the sleuth of Baker Street to solve his last case during the Blitz, with intimations of the Holocaust crowding around like shadows on a wall, would have been conceit enough to make the book memorable. Finally conceding that even the greatest intellectual rigor cannot make sense of unthinkable things, however, is what gives this slim volume its daring, moral beauty and emotional heft. It’s the first thing Chabon has written that can comfortably be called elegiac.

A prose magician, Chabon is that rare literary anomaly: a gentle-spirited writer of boundless ambition. If The Final Solution finds him performing that beautiful trick all great artists do—growing while remaining recognizably the same—there’s no getting around that title, which points the way to bigger novels, the call of history, and the 20th century’s black heart.

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