The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007
by Michael Chabon
If you know anything at all about this book, you probably know that it's a detective novel. (The title, after all, has Policeman right in it.) You might not know that it takes place in an alternate history. In this timeline, Jewish refugees settled in the Federal District of Sitka in 1948 after the collapse of the state of Israel. This settlement came with a ticking clock; as the novel starts, the process of Reversion to the state of Alaska has already begun. Everything is in flux, everything is about to change and has been changing. The earth is slipping beneath Meyer Landsman's feet, although Reversion is the least of his problems (he has many).

This book includes but is not limited to the following: family, community, faith (and lack of), despair, loneliness, guilt, longing, unexpected humor, language, politics, sex, grief, dirty deals, fleabag hotels, eruvs, bodyguards, acts of surprising kindness, acts of surprising violence, religious law, chess, continuity of spirit if not of location, hot tempers, miracles, string, love, alcoholism, endurance, loss, secrets, lies, end of times, bush pilots, rehab, pickles, the wild, the wooly, the wholly unexpected, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, blended culture, afraid of the dark and police work. handbags and hair. drunk and disorderly. heroin. hope. messianic fervor.

I really liked it. I was a little trepidatious after I went to hear Chabon read. The reading was so fun -- he had a great store of personal charm and charisma that he spent freely on his audience. Would the book measure up? It does! I know there has been some hubbub over so-called literary writers working in so-called genre. I haven't read much about it because the conversation gets so heated and touchy I end up mad at everyone. As long as the author in question is respectful of the work (which I think Chabon is), I don't care. I get that it must be very irritating for someone who has been writing genre their whole career to hear someone say "well, MY dragons and wizards novel isn't fantasy," like fantasy is some dirty word, but ultimately what I care about is this: is it good? I think this is good.

There are many memorable characters in this novel. I love how Chabon is able to paint these people in just a few words. Some of them we'll never meet again, but I appreciate the care that went into creating them for their brief moment. A few days after I finished this, various characters kept popping back into my head. I wish someone would make an HBO series based this novel -- there are so many corners of this world that remain unexplored. They just hang there being all intriguing and mysterious yet believably real. I want to know more! He's a very visual writer. Here's a little bit from when Landsman and his partner Berko are in a 3rd tier dive bar (trying to avoid other police and reporters): "Landsman pretends to spit three times over his shoulder. Then, right as he's wondering if this custom has anything to do with the habit of chewing tobacco, Mrs. Kalushiner comes back, dragging the great iron leg of her life." The great iron leg of her life! Of Mrs. Kalushiner it is later said "it takes a sour woman to make a good pickle," which just fills me with questions of what constitutes a good pickle (I have my own opinions) and what exactly made Mrs. Kalushiner so sour. (There are tantalizing hints of this, but I would love to know more.)

"Landsman gets paid--and lives--to notice what normal people miss, but it seems to him that until he walked into Zimbalist the boundary maven's shop, he hasn't given enough attention to string...... But the boundary maven lives and dies by the quality of his string.

Don't you want to know more about someone who lives and dies by the quality of his string? I do. (and there is more -- I edited out a lovely long list of types of string --something to look forward to!) I thought the mystery was pretty compelling too, which surprised me since lately the puzzle parts of mysteries have been the least interesting to me. So, if you like string, mysteries and/or compassionate and humane but not doughy and lifeless writing, I would recommend this novel.
3 comments on "The Yiddish Policemen's Union"
  1. I have the maximum number of holds allowed so I will not be reserving this book. I did, however, get my hands on Russian Ark today. I'll let you know how that turns out. I have 2 videos from video store to watch first, but I have 3 weeks to get through it or, rather, get to it, so, um, that should be like totally possible. I should also say that I hope the striking writer's get everything that they are asking for. And fast. Without new shows I fear I would actually have to converse with people, and that is most definitely NOT the way that I would like to spend the holidays.

  2. I just got my hold of Russian Ark today! have you watched it yet?

    I hope the writer's strike gets resolved soon, too. For selfish reasons (MY SHOWS!), but mostly because the current situation is so unfair to the people who create my shows!

    in case it's not resolved by the holidays, you could always talk to people about books.

  3. No, I have not watched it yet. Maybe Tuesday or Wednesday night? I want to watch it but it is so hard to commit to 90+ minutes. And what is up with SMG being the Maxim woman of the year? So weird.


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