Books

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Michael Chabon

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The Alaskan panhandle is different, here. Here, in Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Israel fell apart in 1948—two years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Berlin—and Jews settled in Alaska, granted brief amnesty by the US. This is the Federal District of Sitka, and it has greeted its once-hopeful inhabitants with nothing but disappointment: 60 years later, Jews survive in half-deserted towns, in a land that's "Mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog, and rain, and half a century of a sense of mistakenness so keen, worked so deep into the systems of Jews, that it emerges everywhere."

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is Chabon's first novel for adults since he won the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay in 2001, which'll be enough reason for most to read it. But there are more reasons—better ones—not the least of which is that The Yiddish Policemen's Union is just as good as Cavalier and Clay.

Meyer Landsman is a Sitka cop—a homicide detective who's divorced his wife, drinks himself into stupors, and is keenly aware of, if apathetic to, the fact that the 60 year limit on the Sitka District is about to run out, rendering his badge worthless and making Sitka's Jews ("the frozen chosen") homeless. It's a shitty life, but as any hard-luck, noir-y detective should know, a mysterious murder always pops up when things are at their worst. So: In the crummy hotel where Landsman drinks and sleeps, a seemingly unimportant Jew is executed, and soon nothing can stop Landsman from delving into the case—not even when his ex-wife, Bina, is assigned to be his boss.

A fast-paced detective novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union veers from angst to humor to allegory, its story spreading from the drab mess of Landsman's hotel room to the righteous rages of the Middle East. Most impressive, though, is Landsman, who'd be a cliché if anyone but Chabon wrote him. The detective walks Sitka's streets with an unshakeable familiarity with life's disappointment, which clashes awkwardly with his foolish devotion to his job.

From Landsman to Bina to the dead Jew in Room 208, it's Chabon's characters that give this work its verve, while it's the world Chabon places them in that give it its substance. Romantic and repulsive, Sitka's slate-gray skies and gulf winds are intent on driving the ever-displaced Jews from their most recent foothold, which leads Chabon to political allegories swollen with relevance.

If there's one fault to be had, it's in Chabon's adherence to a sometimes stuffy mystery template that doesn't jive with his aching, bleeding characters. But even when his plot's seams show, Chabon quickly distracts with a thought or character that reaches so deep into Sitka and its denizens that one can't help but be captivated, and moved, and hopeful that Chabon's next novel doesn't take seven more years to reach us.

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