The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: On the Edge

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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 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

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, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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  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…;)

  9. Great review, Marion. I’ve been meaning to get to this book — its really sounds fascinating.

  10. I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and went into this book with great anticipation……only to be underwhelmed, so much so, that this was actually a DNF for me. Your review almost makes me want to go back and try again…almost.

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