The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon, HarperCollins, 2007, 411 pp
In the second novel I have read by Chabon, the first being The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I was again enchanted with his prose, his descriptive powers and his plumbing of the human heart. The author was awarded both the Hugo and Nebula awards for this inventive tale of alternate history. So convincing is he that two readers in my reading group thought it was true.
What if the oppressed Jews of WW II had been given asylum in Alaska, on an island where they lived, multiplied and flourished in an uneasy coexistence with the native Tlingit Indians? What if, after sixty years, a born-again Christian American President ruled that time was up and their protected Federal District of Sitka would revert to Alaskan control?
Meyer Landsman is a ruin of a homicide police detective, your typical noir character except that he is Jewish. By a freak of co-existence, his partner is also his cousin, Berko Shemets, a half-breed who professes Judaism. Meyer's marriage has shipwrecked on the shoals of a lost child but he gets no relief from his undying grief because his wife is also his boss: the chief of police.
So when a man is found murdered in the cheap hotel where Landsman is living, all the faults and fractures of Meyer's life and of the Jewish community begin to gap and break, creating a wild tale that is comprised of family saga, murder mystery, love story and an intimate look into Yiddish life and the Jewish diaspora.
It is Chabon's unique style to combine tragedy and comedy. In straying as close to some fine line as possible, he incorporates enough melodrama and slapstick to make his highly literary novels into page turners. If you don't know Yiddish and you have no Jewish background, I recommend the paperback which has a handy glossary. It also helps to have a Jewish friend you can question at various points.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union was a fabulous read. I am thankful to my reading group, the Bookie Babes of Burbank, CA, for getting me to read a book that has been on my TBR list for three years, but of which I was a little afraid. And rightly so!
(The Yiddish Policeman's Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay are available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)