Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2007
Review: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union By Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
By Michael Chabon (HarperCollins/414 pages/ $26.95)
Reviewed by Dorman T. Shindler
For those who wish a mainstream writer would get it right when writing genre fiction, the latest tome by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, will put a smile on their faces.
Unlike Philip Roth, who claimed ignorance of other alternative history novels (easily dismissing great works like The Man in the High Castle or even fun reads like Fatherland) when in talking about the origins of The Plot Against America, Chabon, who edited McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales among others, has a solid knowledge of genre fiction; Chabon also has an astute eye for details, which is why he based his new novel on a fairly obscure bit of history. The author’s starting point? What if, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested, Alaska became the homeland for Jews after World War II? “These are strange times to be a Jew” is the refrain repeated by various characters, a litany which gives voice to the book’s theme.
Working off that interesting premise, Chabon pulls his readers into a world called “Alyeska,” a Jewish settlement in Alaska’s panhandle. Gangs of young, Orthodox Jews (replete with long curls of hair and knee breeches) known as “Black Hats” roam around the streets of a central city known as Sitka, looking like a bizzaro-world version of the gangs from West Side Story. In their midst is Meyer Landsman, a Jewish Detective who could’ve stepped out of a novel by Raymond Chandler or John D. MacDonald. Landsman is an old-school tough guy who practically oozes alcohol and cigarette smoke when he talks: “…the most decorated shammes in the District of Sitka…” Saddled with all of the conventional problems of any gumshoe worth his salt, Landsman is dealing with the ghost of a broken marriage, the memories of a dead sister, and a case of career ennui that would challenge even Humphrey Bogart When the landlord Tenenboym of the Hotel Zamenhof wakes the drunken Detective up one morning to investigate suspicious happenings with a neighbor in the apartment building, Landsman finds that the neighbor is, of course, dead. Said neighbor was not only a chess prodigy and a heroin addict, he was the son of Sitka’s most prominent and powerful clergyman, Rabbi Lasker.
For reasons not quite clear to him, this murder suddenly awakens a long-dead spirit inside Landsman. With the help of his partner, Berko Shemets (who is half Jewish, half Tlinget—a Native American tribe), Landsmand sets out to solve the murder mystery. Standing in his way is the fact that in two months Alaska will no longer be a sanctuary for Jews—seems the new homeland was only a rental—the fact that someone (or a group of someones) doesn’t want him to solve the murder, and that his ex-wife, Bina Glebfish, is now Chief of Police!
Chabon tackled the mystery genre with The Final Solution, an interesting mix of Sherlock Holmes and Holocaust history, proving he can tackle just about any genre (he covered YA fantasy with Summerland). Taking that already honed skill, he breathes some interesting new life into the formulaic, noirish detective story. Hilarious and moving, suspenseful and contemplative, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is, like all good genre novels, a twisted, fun-house mirror gaze into the heart of our own troubled times. Of course, it’s also damned good, entertaining little mystery story and an interesting study of a down-and-out character who redeems himself with an eleventh hour act of heroism and detective work. Filled with wordplay, compassion for all the characters involved, and a genuine sense of Weldschmertz (angst at the pain of the world’s citizens—all of them), The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is wild ride through what might have been, a reflection of what might currently be, and another tour-de-force of storytelling from one of America’s premiere novelists.