The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon
Review by John Berlyne
Fourth Estate Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0007150393
Date: 04 June 2007 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Pullitzer prize-winning American author Michael Chabon has been working on The Yiddish Policeman's Union since 2002, but the finished novel proves to have been well worth the wait. Essentially a detective story focussing on a murder investigation, it takes place in an alternative reality where, with the state of Israel having floundered soon after it's creation in the late 1940s, the bulk of the world's Jews were settled in the harsh, freezing Alaskan wastelands.
A superb story in a provocatively imagined setting, The Yiddish Policeman's Union is a real highlight of the spring releases - a hardcover, published by Fourth Estate.
Michael Chabon is a real and rare treasure in genre terms, for he is a writer with a foot so firmly in the mainstream that he makes it impossible for high brow commentators to diminish our genre as an non-serious literary form. Of course, those who loftily look down in this way on science fiction and fantasy would be the very last people on earth who might actually read any! But it is hard to deny that Chabon is an writer well deserving of his Pulitzer Prize (in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay) and that his continual flirtation with genre, through various media (comics and movies as well fiction writing and editorial work) is a welcome middle finger to the stuffier part of the "establishment". Chabon's latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, is set against a premise that is firmly genre, yet the author once again shows himself to be such a well practised literary stylist that it is sure to grab the attention of critics and readers far beyond the confines of the genre ghetto.
Essentially The Yiddish Policeman's Union is a present day novel built upon an alternative history. Chabon, with a wonderful "what if" puts forth a milieu where the state of Israel floundered soon after it's 1948 inception. The Jews, still in Chabon's world the tragic victims of Nazi persecution, are allowed to settle instead in the cold wilderness of Alaska, congregating in the city of Sitka, a space they share with the native Indian Tlingit, and thus a source of some tension. This arrangement however, was not a permanent one, and as the novel opens, events are dominated by the fascinating idea of "The Reversion" – that this Alaskan settlement, cold and inhospitable though it may be, is now only months away from coming to an end, and the poor Jews once again find themselves about to wander the world in search of a place to put down their roots. This grand plot device keeps up terrific pressure throughout The Yiddish Policemen's Union Into this, Chabon throws a good old fashioned detective story, albeit one with particular Jewish character. Our main protagonist is Meyer Landsman, is a middle-aged detective sliding toward oblivion – recently divorced, drinking heavily, living in fleapit hotel and without prospects of improvement. Landsman needs something to latch onto before he is truly lost to himself, and so when his hotel manager asks him to take a look behind the door of room 208, the murder scene he discovers there could well lead to his salvation.
Chabon goes on to unfold a deliciously involved plot, one with a uniquely Jewish flavour. Complications and embellishments involve Landsman's boss, who happens to also be his ex-wife with whom he is still in love; his big, bear-like partner who is a Tanglit/Jewish crossbreed; black hat ultra-religious gangster Jews; the mysteries of chess and ultimately a plot to exploit the messianic doctrines on which the ancient Jewish faith is based. The dialogue is often hilarious and often profound, the threats and dangers all too real for the characters and all of these elements, Chabon deftly lays atop one another with the most extraordinarily beautiful prose, combining words and concepts that will produce a laugh and a wince simultaneously. He is able to conjure images from the unlikeliest word-pairings, ever ingenious and inventive and the writing here is simply sublime throughout.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union manages therefore to tick more boxes than one might expect – it works as a wonderfully involved detective story, as an exploration of Jewish character, as a deeply considered "what if" story, as a tale of redemption, as an allegory against religious extremism, as a thoroughly entertaining yarn and as a masterful example of beautifully written literary fiction. Pretty good value, I'd say for the price of a single book.