The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel by Michael Chabon (New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 464 pp)

One of the most celebrated writers of his generation according to The Virginia Quarterly Review, Michael Chabonwas born in Washington D.C. He earned his B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.F.A from the University of California, Irvine. Chabon published his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, from his master’s thesis at the age of 25. His third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won Chabon the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. He is married to poet Lollie Groth.

Sitka: In Memoriam

A calm morning toward the end of an Alaska cruise, our ship sidled into port outside Sitka, Alaska. My dad yelped two registers too high on the deck and I hurried outside. Two humpback whales had just breached the surface, gulping air before another descent into the sapphire depths. In the background, the steeple of the Orthodox Church outlines the brief skyline of this small Alaskan town. I vividly remember this day spent in Sitka. Well, the Sitka in Michael Chabons’s, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union exists in stark contrast with my memories.

Detectives Investigate Murders

Photo by Harvey Barrison

A hard-boiled, noirish thriller, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union explores an alternate history of Alaska. The principle character, Meyer Landsman, is a Jewish homicide detective from Sitka, Alaska. Landsman is a divorced, depressed policeman who self-medicates with alcohol and throws himself into homicide cases with reckless abandon.

One morning in his dirty, ill-maintained residence, Hotel Zamenhof, Landsman’s landlord notifies the detective of a murder on the premises. On top of the near vicinity of the crimes, Landsman finds intrigue in the victim’s pseudonymity, the style of execution, and the simulated game of chess in the room.
Collaborating with his partner, a half-Tlingit, half-Jew named Berko Shemets, and his ex-wife/commanding officer, Bina, Landsman unravels the clues in this murder mystery through the sprawling metropolis of Sitka.
In the process of solving a murder, Landsman unveils diabolical plots from the Jewish Diaspora and the American government.

What Would Happen If Israel Didn’t Exist?

Interestingly, one of the crucial characteristics of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union—and a thread I glossed over in the early portions of the novel—is the alternative history of Alaska.  Chabon imagines a world in which the post-World-War-II state of Israel evaporates in the late 40s. As such, the Jewish state relocates to Sitka, Alaska where the United States harbored refugees during World War II. Not officially American citizens, this Jewish political state evolves into an urban center with a complicated relationship with the United States.

“Landsman straps an extra clip to his belt and drives out to the north end, past Halibut Point, where the city sputters and the water reaches across the land like the arm of a policeman. Just off the Ickes Highway, the wreck of a shopping center marks the end of the dream of Jewish Sitka. The push to fill every space from here to Yakovy with the Jews of the world gave out in this parking lot. There was no Permanent Status, no influx of new jewflesh from the bitter corners and dark alleys of Diaspora. The planned housing developments remain lines on blue paper, encumbering some steel drawer” (179).

Having visited Sitka, this image of a bustling metropolis conflicts with the experience of a small town with a central Orthodox Church. I found it hard to disassociate reality with Chabon’s alternative. Nevertheless, once I accepted the novel’s backdrop, the setting became imaginative and intriguing.

A Character on the Verge

In addition to the strange retelling of history, I found the way Chabon painted the protagonist to be compelling. The reader commiserates with Meyer Landsman. With every mistake, Landsman reveals the insecurities we all feel when we don’t succeed. His marriage has failed; his job is always in flux; his status in the United States is in question; and his life lies in the balance. Suicide is always an option:

“Landsman, the son and paternal grandson of suicides, has seen human beings dispatch themselves in every possible way, from the inept to the efficient. He knows how it should and should not be performed. Bridge leaps and dives from hotel windows: picturesque but iffy. Stairwell leaps: unreliable, an impulse decision, too much like an accidental death. Slashing wrists, with or without the popular but unnecessary bathtub variation: harder than it seems, tinged with girlish love of theater. Ritual disembowelment with a samurai sword: hard work, requires a second, and would smack, in a yid of affectation. Landsman has never seen it done that way, but he knew a noz once who claimed that he had. Landsman’s grandfather threw himself under the wheels of a streetcar in Lodz, which showed a degree of determination that Landsman has always admired. His father employed thirty 100 mg tablets of Mebutal, washed down with a glass of caraway vodka, a method that has much to recommend it. Add a plastic bag over the head, capacious and free of holes, and you have yourself something neat, quiet, and reliable.
But when he envisions taking his own life, Landsman likes to do it with a handgun, like Melekh Gaystik, the champion of the world. His own chopped Model 39 is more than enough sholem for the job. If you know where to put the muzzle (just inside the angle of the mentum) and how to steer your shot (20 degrees off the vertical, toward the lizard core of the brain), it’s fast and reliable. Messy, but Landsman doesn’t have any qualms, for some reason, about leaving behind a mess” (153-154).

A Wrench in the Case

Photo by Eric Gjerde

Despite the absorbing character of Landsman, I found The Yiddish Policemen’s Union a somewhat difficult read. As mentioned earlier, I began the book without knowing the alternative history of Alaska. As such, my view of Alaska combatted the view in the book for the first 100 pages as I attempted to understand the strange setting.

Second, the use of Yiddish required a dictionary close at hand. Chabon leans on the language just enough that I never felt truly comfortable with the prose.
Yet on the whole, I enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Michael Chabon executes the hard-boiled, noirish thriller genre well. With a compelling plot and captivating characters, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is worth a read.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards
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