[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.]
It’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.