The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was actually the first Michael Chabon novel I ever heard of, although I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay first. The alternate history hook in something that was not especially considered speculative fiction interested me, as well as the fairly glowing reviews I saw. After adoring The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I just had to read more of his work.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union opens with Meyer Landsman, policeman, finding a corpse in the same run-down hotel he himself occupies in Sitka, Alaska–where a Jewish State now resides, after the failure of Israel. But the sixty years the United States promised the Jews of Sitka are about to be up, and Landsman needs to solve this case before it doesn’t even matter anymore.
Part of Chabon’s strength is the ease with which he weaves together disparate themes or settings. Jewish alternate history noir can sound a bit desperate when put so baldly, but Chabon makes it work well; so well, in fact, that the novel requires all three disparate elements to work as well as it does. That’s a sign of a good novel, folks. I got a glimpse of this in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but the interweaving here is on a different level.
The alternate history angle is actually quite subdued, most likely because Chabon’s point of divergence from our timeline isn’t too wildly different–the Allies still won World War II, but it’s the consequences that are a little different. Landsman, naturally, is focused mostly on Sitka and how it came about, but I quite like how it was presented. Landsman, as a noir hero, is given to reflection, and since the State is reverting soon, it’s natural for him to ponder it. Indeed, anything that doesn’t directly relate to Landsman’s situation is glossed over casually, as it should be. I dropped my jaw in absolute shock when a passing remark about fashion revealed that JFK married Marilyn Monroe in this timeline. I would have, however, really appreciated a Yiddish glossary in the back–the back of my notecard bookmark for this book is covered in Yiddish. Still, you have to admire Chabon’s dedication to presenting things how Landsman sees them.
Landsman is your standard noir hero, although Chabon humanizes him quite nicely. He’s flawed–he drinks, he’s still in love with his ex-wife–but he’s still very good at his job and very determined. He’s actually quite relatable, although certainly a smart aleck, mouthing off in probably not the best situations. But the noir archetypes are mostly abandoned past Landsman. Bina is hardly a femme fatale, but a hard-nosed woman who is trying to secure a place for herself after Reversion. The rest of the cast is well executed, from Landsman’s half-Tlingit cousin Berko Shemets to Landsman’s father to the various residents of Sitka. Because of this cast of characters, Jewish Sitka is rendered very realistically–Landsman’s contacts and acquaintances about town don’t feel like sketched characters, but fully realized ones. This is one of Chabon’s strong points, and I’m glad to see it remains so after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The mystery itself is engaging, but it meshes well with the co-plot, I’m going to call it, of Landsman and, really, all the Jews of Sitka coming to terms with Reversion. When the mystery lulls, the co-plot takes over, and vice versa. I really enjoyed this. I often find that mysteries can be awfully thin outside of the mystery itself, so this was an absolute delight. It does takes an unexpected twist towards the end that felt a little rushed, but I quite liked it nonetheless, and the fact Chabon didn’t bow to conventions about the ending endears him to me.
Chabon’s voice is one of my absolute favorites. Each work, of course, should sound a little different–otherwise, the author is just churning out the same thing. There’s a noir sensibility unique to this novel as well as Chabon’s usual marvelous eye for detail and great but appropriate humor. Chabon’s writing is just wonderful, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is so full of marvelous turns of phrase that I’m overwhelmed with candidates for an example. In fact, I can only tell you to go read the first few pages at Amazon. I’m contemplating picking up Manhood for Amateurs because of it. He’s quickly becoming an author whose work I will read regardless of whether I like the subject matter or not. Still, I do have to say that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is still my favorite novel of his–but that’s really splitting hairs.
Bottom line: An absolutely solid piece of work, Chabon’s inventive The Yiddish Policemen’s Union makes Jewish alternate history noir work, with his marvelously human hero, subtle but pervasive and good world-building, and an honestly good mystery. You can’t go wrong with Chabon.
I rented this book from the public library.