Sunday Salon – Review of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” by Michael Chabon

The Sunday Salon.com

Michael Chabon ‘s book has been optioned by the Coen brothers, and that seems entirely appropriate. It is like a Jewish Sopranos episode seasoned by a Marx Brothers writer with a predilection for noir and a Fargo cast of characters, all baked into a tzimmes – the quintessential Jewish dish of endless variety, surprise, and subtle unexpected flavors.

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The story takes some getting used to: as you would expect a Coen-friendly script to be, it can be rude, crude, and a little jarring. After all, in this imaginary Jewish Homeland of Sitka, Alaska, not only are the police Jews, but the gangsters as well. The official language of Sitka is Yiddish, and it is presumed that the characters speak it; non-translatable words are not translated (there is a glossary in the back), and at times, especially when savory cursing is needed, the characters “speak American.”

The premise that Israel as a refuge didn’t pan out, and that Alaska did, has an actual historical basis. Harold Ickes (Department of Interior Secretary in 1940) proposed that Alaska be established as a temporary sanctuary for Jewish refugees. Stout opposition from Alaskans quashed the idea before it even made it out of congressional committee.

In Chabon’s alternate universe, Jews have been living in Alaska for almost sixty years, since 1948; they are “the frozen chosen.” But sixty years also marks the end of the congressional mandate, and the land is about to go back to Alaskan control: “The Reversion.” Many of the Jews have nowhere to go; there is only a short list of places in which they will be welcome. As Meyer Landsman, the main character observes, “Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion, and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.” (Later he observes also that it’s pretty much always a strange time to be a Jew.)

Landsman (Yiddish slang for “member of the tribe”) is a homicide detective, as is his faithful partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, who is half-Jewish and half Tlingit (Alaskan native peoples), and who also has the Indian name Johnny “the Jew” Bear. As the novel starts, Landsman is rousted out of a post-divorce alcoholic stupor to investigate the murder of a mysterious man in his own apartment building. He calls upon Shemets to help him, and the two get involved in a dangerous, but also a humorous, and at times poignant, quest to find the killer. Their supervisor at work, Bina, who happens to be Landsman’s ex, joins in as the complications accelerate.

But this is not only a detective story. It is also a story of an imaginary city, and what Jewish life might be like if Jews lived in a different place than one surrounded by hostile Arabs. Sitka is not a utopia, but it’s home. It’s a love story. It’s a story of the struggle for identity. And it’s a book of soaring, clever prose that lets you fly over Sitka like a Chagall couple in love, sensing colors and patterns and emotions you would never have seen tethered to the ground.

An example: at one point, Landsman encounters an ashtray from a former neighborhood store, Krasny’s:

“Krasny’s, with its lending library and encyclopedic humidor and annual poetry prize, was crushed by American chain stores years ago, and at the sight of this homely ashtray, the squeeze box of Landsman’s heart gives a nostalgic wheeze.”

Or this: Landsman, when he’s facing Bina across the desk:

“He tries and fails not to observe the way her heavy breasts, each of whose moles and freckles he can still project like constellations against the planetarium dome of his imagination, strain against the placket and pockets of her shirt.”

Chabon starts the book with his dedication to his wife, whom he calls “Bashert” (destiny). The idea of bashert, that everything is meant to be, “the foolish coyote faith that could keep you flying as long as you kept kidding yourself that you could fly” is a recurring theme in the story; indeed, it is a recurring theme for the Jews. It ends the book as well.

Evaluation: This is a book that should not be missed, from a writer whose prose of disguised poetry should not go unheard.

Rating: 5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2007

Awards:

Hugo Award for Best Novel (2008)
Nebula Award for Best Novel (2007)
Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2008)
Hammett Prize Nominee (2007)
California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction (2007)
John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2008)
Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2008)
Sidewise Award for Long Form (2007)

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23 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” by Michael Chabon

  1. Wonderful Review. This book has vetted my interest and I will check it out. I like the pictures you posted with this.

    Thanks.

  2. Marie says:

    okay. I have this book sitting around; I got it at a conference a couple of years ago and have procrastinated and procrastinated and procrastinated. And procrastinated. But I have to say, and I mean this sincerely, your review makes me want to pick it up RIGHT NOW despite the book club book I have to read, the review books I have to read and the new releases I have to read. Great job!

  3. Frances says:

    Right there with Marie. My copy has languished for….. I can’t even remember. Thanks for the nudge. Happy reading!

  4. OK, your second sentence of this review is pure literary genius, if I do say so myself. Simply brilliant! Jewish Sopranos … Fargo cast of characters … tzimmes … priceless.

    I’m not quite sold on this one for myself, but it is a definite possibility for the husband. 🙂

  5. Rebecca says:

    I have given you an award!

  6. bermudaonion says:

    I bought this book right after I started my blog and haven’t read it yet. Now, I’m really anxious to get to it.

  7. softdrink says:

    Chabon is on my list of “someday authors.”

  8. Ceri says:

    I absolutely adore your description of this book. And, you’re right, it really does sound like something the Coen brothers would get their hands on, and I’m glad they have. 🙂 I’ll be looking out for this one. I’ve been wanting to read ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’ by Michael Chabon for a while.

  9. Alyce says:

    I missed this one the first time around, and I have to say that you wrote a brilliant review! I haven’t heard of this book, but after reading your review I definitely want to read it.

  10. Nymeth says:

    Excellent review! I love Michael Chabon, and although I haven’t read this one yet I know I’ll enjoy it when I do.

  11. Janel says:

    I am so sad that I passed this book up at a recent library sale! After reading your review I’ll be keeping an eye out for it again. Thanks for the Blast from the Past!

  12. Thank you so much for all of your comments. I have to say that when I finished this book, I practically forced my husband to read it! And then we immediately had to get Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which I also liked but my husband thought it not as good as “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” It’s just a wonderful book!

  13. diane says:

    I was SO HAPPY to read your great review on this book, especially since I own the book. Thanks for inspiring me 🙂

  14. Staci says:

    I have had this book in my hands to check out and never did. I will certainly make time for it now, especially after reading this wonderful post and that you gave this book a 5!!!

  15. Ann says:

    I loved Chabon’s ‘The Final Solution’ but somehow have never got round to reading anything else by him. This sounds like a good place to start. Anything that appeals to the Coen brothers is likely to be my kind of book as well.

  16. I like your idea to rerun some of your oldies because I certainly missed this one. I love the whole concept of the novel – great plot that has me thinking.

    You wrote a superb review, as usual. Here’s my favorite sentence:

    “And it’s a book of soaring, clever prose that lets you fly over Sitka like a Chagall couple in love, sensing colors and patterns and emotions you would never have seen tethered to the ground.”

    That is a perfect example of why your blob is The Best Literary Blog Ever Written. Thank you for that.

  17. Steph says:

    I just read my first Chabon a few months ago. Unfortunately, I think I chose poorly as I read The Final Solution, which was his attempt to play with the detective genre, specifically with Sherlock Holmes. I was largely unimpressed with the writing, but I can’t be sure if what I was reading was Chabon’s normal style or whether he was trying to emulate the Victorian prose of the era… but I also was underwhelmed by the story as well. Essentially, the whole thing fell flat for me!

    I’ve been interested in this book, but I’m a bit leery of Chabon for the time being. Also, I have Kavalier & Clay sitting on the shelf that I should probably tackle first! But thanks for the great review – you’ve definitely given me much to think about!

  18. Jenners says:

    I need to tackle “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” first before I attempt this one!

  19. Belle says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while now. Margot beat me to it, but I’m going to say it, too – “And it’s a book of soaring, clever prose that lets you fly over Sitka like a Chagall couple in love, sensing colors and patterns and emotions you would never have seen tethered to the ground.” What a beautiful sentence. It makes me want to read the book even more.

  20. Lisa says:

    This was one of the first books I reviewed on my blog. As I was so new to the blogging thing, I didn’t do it justice. I’m so glad you did because it’s a great book! Coen brothers are the pretty people to adapt this!

  21. Wow, great review! I have never heard of this book, but it sounds amazing. I’ll check it out — thanks for all your great posts!

  22. Heidi Estrin says:

    Funny how many people have been meaning to read this book but haven’t done it yet! I actually read it soon after it came out and I really liked it. What an imagination Chabon has! Thanks for this fun review, and for participating in the Jewish Book Carnival too!

  23. jewwishes says:

    What a wonderful review! I read this book also and was quite impressed with its symbolism.

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