Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s UnionI’ve been told by a handful of people that I have to read Michael Chabon. Given the sources–thankfully not the same people who told me I had to read Dan Brown–I kept it in the back of my mind. I still haven’t gotten to the book generally regarded to be Chabon’s masterwork (thus far), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Klay, but my gut tells me that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union would likely give its predecessor a run for the money. I mean, this is a book you’d get for the title alone, if you’re of a certain cast of mind. If you’re a browser of other cultures, if you’re inexplicably drawn to things Yiddish to begin with, and you generally like the better class of detective fiction (the kind that doesn’t prominently feature crime-solving cats), it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

Chabon follows the rules of noir–there are nods to Hammett and Chandler in a few places–but makes up most of the rest as he goes along. All the familiar tropes are on display: the drunken, disillusioned detective, his long-suffering and more level-headed partner, the ex-wife–I could go on. But Chabon isn’t content to stop there. In prose that’s alternately hard-boiled and incandescent, he unravels Jewish religious and social strata, examines family ties and obligation, and puts identity politics and fundamentalism through a meat grinder. Best of all, he does all of this in a cadence readily familiar to anybody who’s watched the earlier films of the Marx Brothers. Even the story’s red herrings–and they are legion–are served pickled, in sour cream. 

There are hints from the first page that something’s a bit off-kilter. Why, for instance, is there a sizable Jewish community in Sitka, Alaska? What’s with the elevator signs in Esperanto, or the 1977 Sitka World’s Fair? And why is Sitka set to revert to American control, Hong Kong-style, in just a few short months? Chabon makes it clear that this is only a hint of the strangeness to come.

His protagonist, the hapless detective Meyer Landsman, would have no luck at all if not for bad luck. He wakes up to the death of a “yid” (everybody here’s “yid,” in much the same way everybody on a Jay-Z album is… well, you get the picture) who rooms at the same fleabag motel that he does, and who incidentally may or may not have been the Messiah. Trying to solve the murder, Landsman gets himself quickly and thoroughly over his head, managing to piss off his ex-wife (now his boss), a boundary maven (if such a thing doesn’t exist, it should), a rebbe, criminals organized and disorganized, and various other shtarkers and schmucks. Toward book’s end, it’s almost as though even the author is losing track of who’s killed, double-crossed, or sold out whom. I won’t spoil the fun–and there’s plenty to be had here, albeit in somewhat rigorous form–by giving out any plot spoilers.

“It’s a strange time to be a Jew.” Anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of history would have to realize that this has been the case for at least as long as there’ve been Jews; where, or when, have there been great times to be a Jew, after all? Chabon wraps the ebb and flow of Jewish history rather neatly around a detective story. It’s not in the microscopic details (this is an alternate history, after all), but in the broad strokes–diaspora and dislocation, mistrust and miscegenation, the willful wobble between sacred and profane, the self-deprecation and self-preservation. Landsman isn’t just hunting down a killer; he’s after something altogether more slippery: a sense of identity (personal, cultural), of place, or of belonging in a time and place where these things are continually shifting or slipping from view. Landsman’s last words in the book, “Have I got a story for you,” could just as easily serve as its epigraph.

Postscript: The Coen Brothers will be bringing the adaptation of TYPU to the screen.

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