And Then I Read: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

©Michael Chabon

This is the fourth book of Chabon’s I’ve read, and I’ve liked all of them. The first was the comics-related “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” probably still my favorite, but I also enjoyed “Summerland” and “Gentlemen of the Road” which I reviewed here earlier this year.

Like all but “Summerland” above, this new novel is deeply rooted in genre fiction. The overall framework is the hardboiled detective novel, such as those written by Mickey Spillane, not a genre I’ve ever been much attracted to. Here, Chabon combines it with a sub-genre of science fiction, the alternate history novel, in which the path of historic events have diverged in some key way from our own, creating an alternate version of the present. In TYPU, if I may so abbreviate it, in the aftermath of World War II the state of Israel was not formed in the Middle East. Instead the homeless and persecuted Jews of Europe were given the large island of Sitka on the Alaska coast to live in, and have a degree of autonomy over, though as the novel begins, the District is soon to be dissolved, leaving the residents once more without a home.

The book takes some work from the reader, but if you persevere, you’ll find it rewarding. First of all, Chabon postulates that the language spoken is Yiddish, and many Yiddish words and phrases pepper the text. There’s a glossary in the back for many of them, but not all. I knew some from my ten years working in New York City, but others were unfamiliar, or newly made for this story. Second, the social and political background has to be explained, especially the hierarchy of various Jewish families and sects who control the District and its commerce much like Chicago gangsters in the Prohibition era, or perhaps like factions in Gaza. Third, Chabon has to introduce his characters, the detective Meyer Landsman and his partner, their boss (Landsman’s ex-wife), their families and complex relationships. Fourth, he introduces the main crime, a murder, and gradually reveals how important it is to the entire plot and all the characters in it. Another element that runs throughout is the uneasy relationship between the Jews, the local Tlingit indians, and the rest of the United States.

Lots of things to cover, and the first half of the book is a slow, gradual build with not much action. By the time Meyer gets on a plane and flies to an inland location where the murdered man may have been visiting just before his death, things are really cooking, and lots of action ensues. The rewards overtook the effort of reading, and I became completely absorbed in the story, which continued to surprise and entertain me right until the very last sentence.

If you like either of the genres described above, or are already a Chabon fan, do give this one a try. Even if you’re not, it will reward you if you put a little effort into the first half.

Oh, and the cover art for this paperback edition is an interesting blend of 1940s detective pulp typography with the art of Tlingit indians in a creative three-color design by Will Staehle. I can’t say I love it, but it gets high marks for creativity.

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