The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is Michael Chabon’s first novelistic venture since his Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay in 2001, and in some ways, it’s a step up. Much as I loved K&K, I thought it a bit bloated, thought it sagged in the middle, particularly during the arctic sequences. No such lagging here. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union seethes with action, language, ideas, speculations, and characters. When I choose my best ten at year’s end, I may have to give up my practice of not ranking within the few best. If so, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating this one out for first. Re-reading here, I think I’ve gone on a bit too long, but I hope you can last it out because there’s a lot to discuss about this one.
The lists of agents, editors, and publishers who eschew what they call “genre fiction” is legion. Supposedly, then, none of these esteemed literati would have deigned to touch two of this year’s most distinguished and best-selling works–McCarthy’s The Road (post-apocalyptic theme which is a science fiction staple.) or this mystery novel of Chabon’s. Karen Joy Fowler, who writes both lit fiction and science fiction, spoke of her editor’s consternation when she won a Hugo award right in the middle of promotion for her The Jane Austen Book Club. “Oh, fuck,” was he expression the editor’s chose. She’d worked hard to remove the “genre” stigma from any association with the author of the Jane Austen piece. And now this.
To my mind, a “genre” is no more than a form. As a sonnet, for example, is a form. It has conventions and boundaries. A poor writer can produce slop, a great writer can produce wonders. Shakespeare and Petrarch made pretty good use of those skimpy little 14 lines with all the rhyme and meter rules. Most of Cormac McCarthy’s work, in fact, should have been consigned to oblivion as “westerns” by such criteria. Pre-judging novels based on their form is like refusing to touch Italian food because you once had a bad plate of linguini. But back to YPU.
Despite the exotic setting, which I’ll get to later, the book includes a set of stock crime novel characters. A semi-degenerate, wisecracking detective, (Landsman), with bad luck, bad attitude, and a bad relationship with the rules. There’s a martinet supervisor who insists on said rule book (twist–Landsman’s is his ex-wife.) There’s a body in a seedy hotel room. There’s a crime boss. There’s the Feds interfering with local justice. there are drugs involved. As usual, the characters combat the sordidness with sardonic humor, and Chabon’s is right up there with Chandler and the other aficionados of the crime fiction trade:
“Did you touch anything in the room?” Landsman says.
Tenenboym says, “Only the cash and the jewelry.”
That’s on the first page, and there’s a lot more all the way through.
As for the setting and language, I’m doing an injustice to Chabon’s prose by describing them outside the book’s covers because he weaves all seamlessly and tells a terrific story at the same time, so read the book if you want the experience. But if you want to read about it rather than read it, forge on.
I’d have liked to been able to approach the book without knowing the premise, just to have the experience of seeing the scenes revealed with a fresh eye. However, I’d peeked at some reviews, so knew that we were supposing that the 1948 attempt to settle Jews in Israel had failed and that they’d instead been alloted land in Sitka, Alaska. They displaced the Northland locals just as their real life counterparts displaced the Holy Land locals. The people who preceded the YPU jews are Tlingit instead of Palestinian, but they are no happier about the invasion.
But–good for the Indians, bad for the Yids–the agreement that established the community has a time limit, and it’s due to expire five years from the time YPU begins. Thus, another expulsion of Jews (in YPU they’re the “frozen chosen”) from yet another homeland is imminent.
One of the book’s conceits is that the language is Yiddish, not Hebrew, except where the characters occasionally lapse into what Chabon tags as “American.” Most of the Yiddish terms are expertly defined in context, though the reader might find the website Yiddishdictionaryonline.com helpful from time to time. (I happened on to it by reading ahead to the “Author’s Notes” where Chabon acknowledges its help.) For example, it’s easy to infer the meaning of the reference to a small boy as “a crazy little shkotz,” and get on with the story. However, if you know specifically that the connotations of “shkotz” include “wild Jewish boy” and “smart aleck,” the sentence is richer.
So there’s the body, shot in the back of the head, and Landsman starts investigating. He has a young partner–half-Indian, half-Jew–who helps him. So far as we and they know they’ve got a Sitka crime to solve. As time goes on, true to crime fiction convention, there are walls and webs unseen and unsuspected. Clues planted, half-forgotten, only to be vital later in the story. Then Chabon ramps it up, and we’re involved with an area crime boss. Then the matter becomes inexplicably national. Then international, and we’re suddenly in the midst of a Clancy/Cussler spy thriller instead of a garden variety Chandler/Cornwell murder mystery. And that’s just the plot.
Turning to character and theme. The depths of local, American, and Jewish history Chabon explores with his wide range of characters provide layers of thought, philosophy, and politics easily as full and various as any Updike you can name. We have everything from chess history and practice (chess figures prominently the action) to perspectives on Islam and modern fundamentalist Christianity–all without a trace of polemic or intellectualizing.
It’s an amazing feat, this book, to take a limited form like the crime novel and use it to cast light into some of the darkest corners of modern thought and culture, and to do it with humor and compelling action. It’s the kind of book a Pulitzer prize winner might pull off.