The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

Cover image

Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 0-00-714982-7
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 411

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In the world of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, after a more protracted war that led to the atomic bomb being dropped on Nazi Germany, the Zionist movement still tried to form a Jewish state in the Middle East. However, unlike our world, the Jews were defeated and driven out of the region in 1948, leaving them once again without a homeland. They cut a deal with the United States for control of Sitka, Alaska, as a Jewish self-governing territory. However, there was just enough opposition that the agreement wasn't permanent; sixty years later, it's two months away from Reversion, when the governance of Sitka returns to the United States. No one knows what will happen to all the people who live there, let alone the local police force, of which the protagonist, Meyer Landsman, is a member.

That's the background problem. The more immediate concern, apart from the shambles of Landsman's life, his drinking problem, the fact that his ex-wife is now in charge of the police force and hence is his boss, and that he has two months to close all of his open cases whether they're solved or not, is that one of his neighbors was just killed. More than killed — clearly murdered. And while Landsman is a mess in every other respect, that's not something that he can let go, even when the trail of a murdered drug user leads to the deeply religious Jewish mob and he's told to stop investigating. Especially not when his murdered neighbor turns out to be a more interesting person than anyone expected.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an alternate history, putting it firmly into a corner of the SF genre. It also has a few tidbits of Jewish mysticism and a few miracles. But at it's core, it's a Jewish hard-boiled detective novel, a combination so brilliant that I'm amazed I'd not seen it before. Chabon combines the world-weary fatalism and dogged determination of the Jewish diaspora and the detective who won't let go of a case into a mix of pure brilliance.

First, Chabon is simply an excellent writer. He has a gift for description and analogy that fills his writing with moments of glee. I think every chapter had at least one bit like this:

But the little man just stands there getting rained on, his beard fluttering like a flag of truce. He gazes up at the faceless face of the Zamenhof, gray in the murky streetlight. A narrow pile of dirty white brick and slit windows, three or four blocks off the tawdriest stretch of Monastir Street, the place has all the allure of a dehumidifier. Its neon sign blinks on and off, tormenting the dreams of the losers across the street at the Blackpool.

"The Zamenhof," the old man says, echoing the intermittent letters on the neon sign. "Not the Zamenhof. The Zamenhof."

For me, one of the signs of the best noir detective story is the dry edge of humor in the narration, a bleak sort of gallows humor that makes one laugh at the sheer predictable cussedness of the world. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the best example of this that I've ever read. This is not a humorous book, but it had me laughing out-loud more often than many a Pratchett novel. Often I was laughing in delight at yet another unexpected but utterly apt metaphor:

Landsman goes back out to his parking place and gets into the car. He runs the engine and sits in the heat blowing in off the engine. With the smell of Pinky on his collar and the cool dry ghost of Goldy's hand in his, he plays goalkeeper as a squad of unprofitable regrets mounts a steady attack on his ability to get through a day without feeling anything.

or, even more delightfully, the punch line of another sarcastic comment on the state of the world, lovingly set up over the course of several chapters. There's a moment like that near the center of the book, when Landsman is in the heart of enemy territory, that's one of the best combinations of bone-dry humor, brilliant description, characterization, and plot advancement I've ever read.

Second, Chabon populates this book with wonderfully memorable characters. The primary cast are fully-fleshed, complicated people; the secondary cast are often outrageous, fascinatingly creative ideas. I think my favorite is Zimbalist, the boundary maven who is one of Landsman's primary contacts in the world of the ultra-orthodox, who in his maintenance of the eruv guards the souls of the community while being difficult, abrasive, and startlingly competent. But there are so many others: the washed-up Jewish secret service agent, the Napoleonic Tlingit Inspector Dick (all of those adjectives come together brilliantly), the sequestered wife of the orthodox rabbi, and even the villains such as Cashdollar, a bitingly accurate stereotype of the sort of US Christians who have an unhealthy obsession with Jewish political struggles.

The mystery itself is a good plot driver, but it's not the point of this book. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is in that sense a very mainstream novel: the plot exists to give the characters something to react to, rather than sitting at the center of the novel. The point is not the outcome of the story (which is somewhat less fully resolved than one might expect), but rather the decisions that it leads Landsman to. It is, as the jacket flap says, in some ways also a love story, although in that way in which it could never openly say that it was a love story because the people involved don't talk about themselves that way. But mostly it's a story about doing one's job during the end of one's personal world, and figuring why you're doing so.

This is one of those rare books that I finished and immediately wanted to read again because the language and presentation is so well-written that it's a joy to savor even if one knows exactly what's happening next. When I do read it again, it will probably be with a Yiddish dictionary on-hand, but for the first time through, there's some appeal to getting a feel for it from context. There are just enough bits of Jewish religion and mythology included to spark intellectual fascination (in addition to eruv, there's quite a bit here about the idea of the tzaddik hador, the potential messiah of a generation), I loved the bits of chess Chabon mixes in, and there's always the intellectual fun of figuring out points of departure of an alternative universe. And despite all of the neat corners of the book to explore and unpack, it's wonderfully readable, clear, visual, and never prone to long dumps of either information or angst. Even in the longer descriptions, Chabon's gift for metaphor makes each paragraph sparkle.

Chabon previously won the Pulitzer for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and a Mythopoeic award for his children's novel Summerland. He's a generally mainstream novelist with an appreciation for SF and fantasy, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a stellar example of how good writing, and good writers, crosses genre boundaries. For a novel with this much of a mainstream background and sensibility to win a Nebula says a lot about how good it is. This is the best novel I've read so far this year — highly recommended.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-05-27

Last modified and spun 2015-04-18