The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a classic hardboiled mystery in an inspired alternate-history setting. We learn on Page 1 that a man using the alias Emanuel Lasker has been shot dead in a fleabag hotel--but this hotel is in the Yiddish-speaking metropolis of Sitka, Alaska, which was granted to the Jews for 60 years following the failure of the state of Israel in 1948. Now it is 2007 and Sitka is about to return to American control, throwing its residents into a muddle. And when detective Meyer Landsman, already down-on-his-luck, tries to solve Lasker's murder, he runs up against a complex conspiracy involving some obscure corners of Jewish lore.
My half-Jewish mom informs me that landsman is the Yiddish word for "countryman, comrade," and Meyer Landsman is kind of an Everyman figure...at least, an Every-detective. Chabon has fun drawing parallels between secular Jews and noir detectives, both trying to do right in a world that lacks a Messiah or a moral compass. Though cynical and faithless, they persevere. They both use self-deprecating wisecracks as a kind of armor. And not only does Landsman have personal angst (a failed marriage), he also carries the angst of his entire race. When an Indian doctor criticizes his alcohol habit, Landsman retorts: "Tell me, please, if the country of India were being canceled, and in two months, along with everyone you loved, you were going to be tossed into the jaws of the wolf with nowhere to go and no one to give a fuck, and half the world had just spent the past thousand years trying to kill Hindus, don't you think you might take up drinking?"
As shown by its willingness to play with Jewish stereotypes, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is refreshingly irreverent. Everyone calls one another "yid," and the murdered man was a heroin addict who tied off with the cord from his tefillin. Yet at the same time, the novel explores issues of contemporary Jewish identity--ones that resonate in our own world and not just in alternate history. For instance: is Judaism religious, ethnic, or something else? Can secular Jews and orthodox Jews get along? What does it mean to belong to a group that defines itself by its exile? Can the Jews ever find a place to accept them? (In the novel, the colonizing Jews of Sitka end up in a rather Israel-and-Palestine situation with the native Alaskan tribes.)
But The Yiddish Policemen's Union is also a real page-turner, told in present tense so the events come even more vividly to life. Sitka and its residents are wonderfully imagined--in fact, I wanted to see more of some characters. For instance, the American reporter Dennis Brennan, who speaks a hilariously mangled version of Yiddish, appears in only one scene. Yiddish slang peppers the book; my copy (Harper Perennial, paperback) had a helpful mini-glossary at the end.
What I love most about Chabon's writing is what I'd call his thematically appropriate similes. Many writers fill their pages with flashy similes, but if anything can be compared to any other random thing, where is the resonance, where is the weight? (E.g., this bugged me about Marisha Pessl's writing in Special Topics in Calamity Physics. A simile like "Houses slumped against the smooth lawns like dozing elephants on ice rinks" feels forced and unnecessary.) Chabon, however, usually draws comparisons that enhance his novel's themes and concerns. Similes that could only fit The Yiddish Policemen's Union and would seem inappropriate in any other book. For instance, during a funeral sequence, the fir trees in the cemetery "sway like grieving Chassids," and the voice of blues singer Robert Johnson "sounds as broken and reedy as a Jew saying kaddish in the rain." Because in this scene, along with the fir trees and the blues music, there are also grieving Chassids saying kaddish in the rain. The similes add detail and emotional resonance--they are not merely flashy.
Or see this dazzling passage, describing Landsman's sister Naomi, a bush pilot:
The wings of an airplane are engaged in a constant battle with the air that envelops them, denting and baffling and warping it, bending and staving it off. Fighting it the way a salmon fights against the current of the river in which it's going to die. Like a salmon--that aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home--Naomi used up her strength and energy in every struggle.So in three sentences, Chabon draws an intricate web of connections between Naomi's personality, what she does for a living (fly airplanes), the wildlife of the area where she lives (Alaskan salmon), and her religion (Judaism). Startlingly clever and illuminating.
The Coen Brothers are going to adapt Yiddish Policemen's Union as a movie, and I could not be happier. Is it a contradiction to say that the world of this book is sui generis and totally original; yet at the same time, it cries out to be a Coen film? It's noirish, it uses weird slang, it delights in language, it takes place in an odd corner of America, most of its roles are for "character actors," there's plenty of violence and dark humor and some seriously evil characters... all the typical Coen Brothers motifs. (And the brothers are Jewish, of course.) A Berkeley bookstore is having a "cast the Yiddish Policemen's movie contest" (scroll down)--I just might put together an entry!
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is now sitting comfortably on my shelf next to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. It's just a coincidence due to alphabetical order. But it feels right.