The Yiddish Policeman’s Union


I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been mulling over my review ever since, trying on one approach after another and feeling dissatisfied with each. Michael Chabon’s novel is a marvel: it is noir detective fiction, with all the shady, elaborate, and ultimately nonsensical plot elements that implies; it is speculative fiction, an alternative history in which the Jews were violently expelled from Israel in 1948 and settled, instead, in the fictional Sitka district of Alaska. (Picture snow instead of sand, polar bears instead of camels.) It is a story of rootlessness, since Sitka is about to revert to the control of the United States, and it is a wry, despondent, gentle, ironic search for family and self and place and hope when none of those things bear any of the traditional meanings.

Chabon’s main character, Meyer Landsman, is a detective at the end of his rope. Divorced, haunted by guilt, his career a shambles, his friendships at the breaking point, he takes on one last case: a fellow inhabitant of his dreary hotel, shot during the night. At first he accepts the case only from a sense of being affronted: how could someone get killed right on his doorstep? But then he discovers that the victim was a chess player, and memories surface; he discovers ties to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Mafia at the center of Sitka, and the intrigue gets deeper; he follows the clues, and the plot takes a sharp left turn and starts to do the hora.

Never mind the plot. At that point, it’s immaterial. By that time, you just want to spend more time, not just with Landsman, not just with his ex-wife or with his partner Berko Shemets, not just with the dozens of other wonderful characters, but with Sitka itself. It’s a cold, dreary place, about to be uprooted and lost, but it’s rich and grimy as Dickens’s London, and it’s worth losing. It’s home.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is not as amazing, as astonishing and transformative a work as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but it’s a great book nonetheless. I loved it. I wished it were longer (which is not something I could say about Kavalier and Clay.) The title, for instance: the Yiddish Policeman’s Union only shows up once in the book, and even then only peripherally. Yiddish all the time, of course, and policemen. But the book is about the opposite of union. It’s about falling apart, and divorce, and loss. Or it looks that way for a while. Read it and see.

Chabon uses a wonderful noir style, very different from his other work (shorter sentences, for one thing, which can be a blessing), but he sprinkles it thickly with yiddish words: latke, shvitz, shalom, dybbuk, shammes. The rhythm soothes and jars in almost equal proportions. This is familiar, this is strange. This is home, this is not my home. In the end, that’s the point: home can be anywhere. “Strange times to be a Jew,” one character after another muses, and it’s more than an observation, it’s a platitude. When is it not? So pull home out of your handbag. Set up camp where you are. Tell another story and light the flame.


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