Edge: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

The 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.”

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.

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RYAN SKARDAL is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF. Ryan and his wife make their home in New Jersey, where they read alongside several cats and two highly disobedient huskies.

View all posts by Ryan Skardal

8 comments

  1. I had a chance to get this book a while ago, but passed. I guess I should reconsider, judging by this review. Sounds promising.

  2. I’ve had this book on my shelf for two years….I really should read it.

  3. Darn it! This is a great review, but I just pulled this book out of my stacks to read again and write a review of. Well, no need to do that now, I guess.

  4. I think everyone’s had this book on their shelf for two years. That’s how long I had it before I read it.

  5. To reply to Rabid Fox, I have to say, with some concern, that a plot that seemed wild in 2008 when I first read the book now seems. . . possible.

  6. ‘Possible?’ Really?

    Though there is some shared meaning between the two terms, I think labeling this ‘science fiction’ is a bit misleading. That said I think, ‘Alternate history’ seems to satisfy. Nomenclature aside, I thought this book was fabulous. Why not call it ‘good-ass fiction?’

  7. Hi, Chad!

    “Good-ass fiction” works for me. My comment wasn’t very clear. I didn’t mean a Jewish Homeland in Alaska. I meant the conspiracy plot that is part of the story. I’m trying not to give anything away here.

  8. “Everyone’s had this book on their shelf for two years”–that itself could make a good story. I’m imagining a book that gets released and then somehow magically keeps people from reading it…until two years later…when something ominous occurs…;)

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