Michael Chabon

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 30, 2007)

"These are strange times to be a Jew," Tenenboym agrees. "No doubt about it."

Picture an Alaska with none of the romance: no polar bears, no igloos, no reindeer. Imagine instead, a place with “mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog and rain.” In Michael Chabon’s beautifully constructed new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, that’s precisely the territory the Jews inherited in 1948. Not Israel--but a frozen mass up north called the Sitka settlement made real when the United States Congress granted the Jews “interim status” in Alaska.

Read ExcerptThe story is based on a real nugget of history--the Roosevelt administration in the 1940s briefly considered offering Alaskan land to persecuted Jews. In reality Sitka has a population of just under 10,000. But Chabon’s Sitka teems with over two million Jews speaking in Yiddish and cursing in “American,” sharing the land with the native Tlingit Indians. The “Reversion”--when the official interim status is about to be revoked--is near and it is in this uncertain climate, that a heroin-addled junkie is shot execution style through the head.

Ordinarily, Emanuel Lasker’s death would barely have made waves in a police department getting ready to wrap up and neatly file away its cases. But the yid has been shot at the  Hotel Zamenhof  where shammes (Detective) Meyer Landsman has been holed up for a while now. And Landsman just can’t take it when one of the hotel residents is taken down in such a brazen act.

Despite orders from higher up to the contrary, the border-line alcoholic Landsman sets about his investigations with a sidekick--half-Tlingit assistant, Berko. Tensions ride higher when his ex-wife Bina is also his new boss. Chabon writes here in classic noir detective style, injecting crisp dialog and a rapid clip to the story. Things get even more intriguing when we discover that the junkie shot dead was no ordinary citizen, but was Mendel Shpilman the son of a famous and powerful Rabbi and (even better), officially slated to be the next Messiah.

Landsman has many questions he needs to address in just a few weeks: Exactly why was Mendel Shpilman killed? In what way is his sister’s death (Naomi Landsman died in a plane crash) connected to all of this? Why does his investigation keep hitting roadblocks?

Chabon starts the reveal two-thirds of the way in and this is where “Union” falters. There are hints at religious and political machinations from all sides including the United States and the plot careens off track in a somewhat fantastical fashion as all loose ends are tied. All of it probably confirms what many a character in the novel repeats quite often: “These are strange times to be a Jew.”

Chabon is at his electrifying best at conjuring up the Alaskan Jewish settlement. Just as he painted 1940s New York so expertly in the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (I read all 656 pages that summer--twice), here too Sitka and its residents live and breathe so palpably they practically jump off the page. A character smells like “Vitamin B, spray starch, smoked fish,” and Chabon describes a salmon as an “aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home.”

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union wonderfully fulfills one of the central requirements of good storytelling: it transports the reader completely. For that reason alone, it is worth a read. I just don't plan to read this one twice.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 406 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Yiddish Policemen's Union at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Michael ChabonMichael Chabon was born in Washington, D.C. in 1963 and grew up in Columbia, Maryland. His father, Robert S. Chabon, is a physician and lawyer, and his mother Sharon a lawyer. He wrote his first story at the age of 10, recieved an "A" and knew that he wanted to be a writer. He received his B.A degree from the University of Pittsburgh and his MFS in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine. His first novel was his thesis. His professor sent the transcript to a literary agent without telling Chabon, who was offered an impressive $155,000 advance for it.

His novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Summerland, a fantasy novel for young readers, won the 2003 Myhtopoeic Fantasy Award. In late 2006, Chabon completed Gentlemen of the Road, a 15-part serialized novel that ran in The New York Times Magazine, which will be published in book form later in 2007.

Chabon and his wife, the author Ayelet Waldman, live in Berkley, California. They have four children.

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