fantasy and science fiction book reviewsfantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is (breathe in) an alternate history science fiction noir police procedural that won plaudits from the literary mainstream as well as several top honors from the science fiction community (breathe out).

There’s a great deal going on, but perhaps it’s best to introduce the setting. In this alternate history, America created a temporary settlement for Jews in Sitka, Alaska. Today, the Sitka Jews are facing Reversion, which means that millions of Jewish settlers will have to find a new home.

Reversion should be a problem for Meyer Landsman, a detective who “has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker.” However, he has not even begun to apply for papers that will allow him to settle in a new country. Instead, he has been steadily drinking himself to sleep every night since he and his wife, Bina Gelbfish, split.

Landsman is staying at Sitka’s seediest hotel, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a junkie has just been murdered there.  It looks like a hit. Taking it somewhat personally, Landsman has himself assigned as the lead detective on the case. What follows is as bizarre an investigation as any I’ve ever read. That murdered junkie turns out to be a chess prodigy and the son of a mobster. Women explain that he had a sort of natural magnetism and there’s talk that he was able to heal people with his blessing. So why was he killed?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Landsman will solve this case. Since the precinct is now preparing for Reversion, they can’t afford to take on any new cases. Landsman’s commanding officer, who also happens to be his ex-wife, orders Landsman to forget about the murder.

The reader’s enjoyment of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union will depend upon their tolerance for Chabon’s dedicated homage to Raymond Chandler. Some authors will sacrifice narrative voice in order to keep the plot moving. Here, Chabon always chooses to give precedence to cleverly noir descriptions of Landsman’s investigation rather than the investigation itself. Readers that prefer steady suspense in their plotting should probably read an Arkady Renko novel.

On the other hand, readers that enjoy Chabon’s writing will be in for quite a ride. In fact, Chabon’s wordplay often pays off when least expected. Perhaps one of my favorite moments in the novel came when I consulted Chabon’s glossary of Yiddish terms to discover that Landsman’s “sholem” was a pistol. The glossary explains that this is a bilingual pun that plays on the Yiddish word for peace (“sholem”) and the American slang for gun, a “piece.”

What may be most rewarding is Chabon’s ability to combine a love of genre, a clever, literate voice, and middle-aged characters. When reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, readers will finally understand what makes literary fiction “mundane.”

~Ryan Skardal

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael ChabonIt’s 1999. In January, the Jewish enclave in Sitka, Alaska will revert to the US government, and the Jewish community that settled there in 1948, when an attempt to create a Jewish state in Israel failed, will once again be cast to the four winds, homeless. This isn’t even the plot, really, of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The plot revolves around a murder mystery, the death of a man in the same Single-Resident-Only hotel that the main character, police detective Meyer Landsman, has lived in in since the collapse of his marriage.

With The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, published in 2007, Chabon created a literary novel that successfully imagines an alternate world, gives that world a real history of its own, and sets well-developed and interesting characters into it. Landsman, although he thinks about his smart and gorgeous ex-wife Bina, is really grieving the loss of his sister Naomi, a bush pilot, in a plane crash. He takes refuge in alcohol. The murder in his building propels him into a larger scheme, a conspiracy that shakes the foundation of Sitka. All the while, the Reversion clock is ticking, and around Landsman, everyone is talking about their plans except him.

Chabon fills this book with interesting characters. Landsman is sad, sharp, funny and self-deprecating; Bina is smart, tough and impatient with her ex’s refusal to face his true feelings. Landsman’s partner Berko, who is native Alaskan, has a scandal in his family’s past that he must work to overcome. Following Landsman and Berko in their investigation, the reader meets a person with the unusual job title of “boundary maven,” uncovers a conspiracy to bring about the End of Days, and learns a lot about the Jewish Messiah.

Chabon captures a certain rhythm of speech in his dialogue, and the book drips with dead-pan wit, as in this passage where Landsman prepares thinks about the woman he is interviewing, who serves pies at the Yakovy airport, that … “Her pie has greater moral character than half her clientele.”

Later, Landsman, Berko and a Native reservation cop named Dick study some unusual cows, one unusual cow in particular.

He backs up and comes at the fence again. Landsman and Dick get out of the way, and he’s up and airborne, and then the ground rings with the impact of him.

“Show off,” Landsman says.

“Always was” says Dick

“So,” says Landsman, “What are you saying? The cow is wearing a disguise?”

When I first read this book in 2008, I thought the conspiracy Landsman uncovers was plausible but unlikely. I am sad to report that I now think it is plausible and that there is probably someone actually plotting to do it, right now. It’s that convincing.

There is a lot of Yiddish in the book. A lot. Chabon uses this existing dialect to create a another level of realism in his alternate universe.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union reads just as well as a mystery, an alternate world story, or a character study about loss and denial. Without a lot of fanfare, Chabon took an interesting what-if (what if Alaska was temporarily the new Israel?) and turned it into a believable world and a gripping story.

~Marion Deeds

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabonfantasy and science fiction book reviewsI knew I would eventually get around to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. How can one resist? An alternate history about the US resettling European Jews to Alaska to escape the Holocaust, in a world in which Germany defeated the Soviet Union, Berlin was destroyed by nuclear weapons in 1946, and Israel was destroyed in 1948 in a different version of the Arab-Israeli War. Michael Chabon uses this setting for a hard-boiled detective noir story inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and adds the most colorful, ironic, and over-the-top narrative voice I’ve read in years. The audiobook is narrated expertly by actor Peter Riegert, who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood outside New York and whose resume includes two years on The Sopranos. He handles the colorful literary chutzpah of Chabon’s prose without embellishment and with cool competence.

Chabon revels in all aspects of Jewish culture, both what can be viewed as stereotypes or treasured cultural traits, along with classic detective noir, alcoholic self-destructive cops, sinister and yet comical mob bosses, chess geniuses that may also be the Messiah, Native American tribes, and the cold inhospitable backdrop of the Alaskan coastline itself. It’s a very eclectic and enticing stew with different flavors battling for supremacy, and for that reason will not be to everyone’s taste, but nobody would deny is unique and memorable. There is also a copious amount of Yiddish terms that add yet another layer of flavors to an already heady concoction, so have your web glossary handy.

I won’t describe the plot in detail since Ryan and Marion have done that already. Rather, I’d like to include some of my favorite quotes from the book, because they are frankly what gives the book its character, rather than the plot itself. In fact, while I really liked the writing most of the time, it sometimes completely overwhelmed the story. Strip out the colorful, larger-than-life character descriptions and alternate history backdrop, and the noir mystery isn’t really that memorable. So the charm is in the telling, and as far as that goes, Chabon certainly doesn’t hold back. Whether you find it incredibly brilliant, charming but overbearing, or just too much really depends on your literary preferences. I felt all three at times, so I gave it 3 stars overall. Here are some memorable passages that will help you decide if this book is for you.

The main character, detective Meyer Landsman:

He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It’s like there’s a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from the blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down. 

Landsman’s estranged ex-wife and fellow detective, Bina Gelbfish:

You have to look at Jews like Bina Gelbfish, to explain the wide range and persistence of the race. Jews who carry their homes in an old cowhide bag, on the back of a camel, in the bubble of air at the center of their brains. Jews who land on their feet, hit the ground running, ride out the vicissitudes, and make the best of what falls to hand, from Egypt to Babylon, from Minsk Gubernya to the district of Sitka. Methodological, organised, persistent, resourceful, prepared… A mere re-drawing of borders, a change in governments, those things can never faze a Jewess with a good supply of hand wipes in her bag.

The most powerful mob boss in Sitka, Alaska:

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined desert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God.

~Stuart Starosta

Publisher: For sixty years Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end. Homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. And in the cheap hotel where Landsman has washed up, someone has just committed a murder — right under his nose. When he begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, and Landsman finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage. At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.