The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Book Reviews | Jun 27th, 2007

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Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 432
Retail Price: 9.99
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I still don’t know what to make of Michael Chabon. The first book of his I read was likely many people’s introduction to him, his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That book told a wonderful and exciting story for the first half and then petered out in the second half; the book was ultimately too long and too descriptive, but still incredibly well written. After that book, I read his debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which was a nice if unremarkable book that I relatively enjoyed until the worst last sentence in all of modern literature. Both works gave me unnecessary rage yet simultaneous reverence for Chabon.

So I decided to give his newest book a try. To sum up the plot as briefly as I can, it supposes that in 1948, when Israel was recognized as a nation, it almost immediately failed due to conflict with its neighbours. An American politician then offers an area of land in Alaska called Sitka as a temporary settlement for the diasporic Jews. Millions of Jews flock there and call the cold and desolate landscape their home. Sixty years later, the lease on the land given by the Americans is about to run out when pathetic alcoholic detective Meyer Landsman finds one of his neighbours in his hotel dead. Despite pressure from the incoming American government to wrap up loose ends and not pursue new ones, Landsman becomes obsessed with the case, which begins to involve him and his partner Berko, his ex-wife-cum-boss Bina, and a group of mysterious religious Jews called Verbovers.

The concept is very ambitious, and at times I felt like Chabon got either too involved in describing the situation in Sitka more than the plot itself. With Chabon’s relentless detail the book becomes a very slow read. Still, the plot is relatively engaging if unoriginal; essentially, it’s a murder mystery set in the arctic. It plays on most detective novel cliches without being clever enough to be satire or incisive enough to revolutionize the genre. Landsman is too much of a schlub (using my rudimentary yiddish) to be likeable, although his Marlowe-esque traits still create a certain mystique.

One of my biggest frustrations with the novel was its tendency to go into far too much detail about the situation in Sitka and how it got there. What would have been much more effective would be to set up the scene in the beginning and let the story carry on from there. It almost becomes the excuse for certain plot twists, like ‘oh yeah, there were some tunnels that some crazy Jews built a long time ago…’. Additionally, a reader with absolutely no knowledge of Judaism, Israel’s history, or even some basic Yiddish would get very lost with some of the language and concepts covered. I feel like Wikipedia might need to be close by for some gentiles.

With all criticisms aside, I still did somewhat enjoy the book. It was very ambitious and its concept as a whole is relatively comical; the Alaskan Jews (aka the ‘Frozen Chosen’) seem almost improbable compared to where most of the diaspora are now. Chabon seems to have put a lot of thought into what would likely happen if Jews lived away from the promised land – everything from speaking Yiddish instead of Hebrew and bending the rules of the sabbath one way or another. Landsman’s story does a good job of allowing the reader to encompass much of what life in Sitka is like, although what could have been more interesting is a detailing of the reversion back to American soil, and perhaps the politics in the States with regard to the decision not to extend their lease there.

Ultimately, it’s a dense, wordy, yet creative novel that is not Chabon’s strongest, but still shows he’s an important modern writer. Just one message to him: get a fucking editor and make all your books 200 pages.

Bottom Line: Interesting, but ultimately very frustrating.
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