123 of 133 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2007
I've been reading Chabon since I first picked up "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" over a decade-and-a-half ago, and it's been fun seeing his writing evolve with each new work. I believe that "Kavalier and Clay" is one of the best American novels of the past ten years, and that's not even because I'm such a comic book fan; it's just an extraordinary novel on many levels. When I heard of the concept of "Yiddish Policemen's Union," I was worried that it sounded a bit too high concept; then I considered that Chabon is such a great writer that I'll forgive him for anything - even his recent "Simpson's" voiceover where he and Jonathan Franzen got into a fistfight. Luckily, no forgiveness needs to be granted (like Chabon couldn't care less anyhow; who am I in the Kakutani-era of literary criticism?) Chabon's newest novel is just further confirmation of his skill.
This book is unique as it's not a speculative novel masquerading as Jewish noir, nor is it noir with a glossy veneer: it's everything at once. The questions of Jewish identity and what will happen to the community once the Reversion happens never takes away from the main tale; it's so well tucked in with the main action that Chabon never goes off on a tangent. All the while, Chabon plows ahead with a mystery that will set off chuckles of recognition as he hits and bounces upon every noir convention like a pinball. Informers, grieving mothers, loyal partners, the obligatory moment when an unconnected crime enters the frame - it's all there, but with its overlay of the Jewish community in the north, it feels fresh.
A few reviewers have commented that they missed out on Jewish in-jokes. I'm a goy through and through but didn't feel I was missing anything by not picking up on them, so do not let that keep you from reading the novel. I want to read the book again just to get a feel of the words and unique narrative style that follows the grammatical phrasing of Yiddish. (Another exceptional touch.)
By setting the novel at the end of an era, Chabon has also been able to sidestep any possibilities of a franchise with "the continuing mysteries of ..." Actually, that doesn't sound like it would be such a bad idea but I'd rather Chabon take on a completely new subject.
Bravo, Mr. Chabon.
233 of 257 people found the following review helpful
said the words out loud those who had assumed Yiddish was a language of the past only, suddenly felt it had been revived. . . . It seemed to be saying `khbin nisht vos ikh bin amol geven. I am not what I once was. Ober `khbin nisht geshtorbn. Ikh leb. But I did not die. I live." Irena Klepfisz.
Yiddish is certainly not dead in Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union". In fact, the primary language of Jews throughout the "Pale of Settlement" (where Jews were allowed to live in Imperial Russia) suffuses this book with the rich aroma of a language whose every word can take on a paragraph or even chapter of meaning in the hands of the right speaker. Chabon is one such speaker (or writer) and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a book that is rich in enjoyment.
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is an artful blend of genres, a blend of crime fiction and alternate history. I think of it as a blend of Dashiell Hammett's dark crime stories like "Red Harvest" and Philip Roth's alternate-history novel "The Plot Against America".
Chabon has created a world in which there is no Israel. Rather, Israel had been crushed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Since that time the United States, partly as a result of guilt over the Holocaust has created a temporary homeland for displaced European Jews in and around Sitka, Alaska. Yiddish, not Hebrew, is the primary language. As the book opens, close to 60-years after the end of Israel, Sitka is due to revert back to U.S. control and the million or so inhabitants face the prospect of being stateless refugees. The hero, or protagonist, is Detective Meyer Landsman. Like one of Dashiell Hammett's characters he is a flawed, down-on-his luck cop with nothing much going for him except a strong sense of right and wrong and a personal integrity of the highest order. He is a drunk, he is divorced (and his ex-wife is his commanding office) and he lives in a flea-bag hotel. He is awakened out of something of a stupor and told a murder has been committed in the hotel.
It does not quite do Chabon's book justice to say that the story line is primarily that of Landsman's investigation into the murder of this stranger in his fleabag hotel. That is certainly how the book plays out. However, that is simply the structure of the book. As in Hammett, there is a murder in a town filled with greed and corruption and the path Landsman must walk is filled with hurdles and hidden minefields. As in Roth, the story of Landsman (which in itself is a Yiddish word that may be roughly translated as fellow countryman) is the story of a people set adrift and apart. It is a story of a people bobbing in a sea without an anchor, without a homeland. It is poignant but, ironically, it is poignancy without the schmaltz.
Chabon's writing, like Yiddish itself, is rich and thick with meaning. But more importantly, it is both funny and thoughtful. The barbs and insults and sarcasm with which the characters express their fondness for each other and their scorn and loathing is, in my opinion, dead-solid perfect. As I read "Yiddish Policemen's Union" I could envision the body language and sense the arched eyebrows or sneers on the lips of the characters as words come tumbling out of their mouths in a torrent.
Although I won't say anything to reveal the plot, I think Chabon shows excellent pace and timing in developing the plot. He neither rushes to expose too many details too soon nor leaves everything to a summary revelation at the book's climax. Chabon keeps the pot boiling and that kept me turning page after page after page long after I should have turned out the lights for the night.
One slight cautionary note: I grew up in a Queens, New York neighborhood at a time when Yiddish words and expressions were sprinkled liberally throughout every conversation both in my family's apartment and throughout my neighborhood. However, if you don't have any prior experience with Yiddish I suggest going on line and keeping a Yiddish-English web page handy if you find you have any difficulty with the odd word or phrase. Ultimately the pleasures of this book so far outweigh the minimal burden of pondering the occasional strange word. I mention it just so the potential reader is aware in advance that they might see a few words that may not be readily understood by every reader.
I got a great deal of pleasure from reading Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and recommend it heartily. L. Fleisig
339 of 401 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2007
What can you say about a book like this? Not much without giving something away. It's audacious as can be believed. What's it about? Read the Publisher's Weekly blurb above. Or, better yet, don't.
Chabon is a genius and a madman, a wizard and a mensch. He's a wrecking crew, a culture-blender, and a rebbe packing heat. Who else would, or could, take Nick Charles and put him in Shalom Shachna's body? (Or maybe it's the other way around.) Equal parts Kabbalah and Ka-Bar, it's funny and gripping, and entertaining, and so heartbreaking at times it's hard to breathe.
In sum, I found it extraordinary - the concept, the language, the characters and the plot. It's not perfect, but it is simply one of the best novels I've read in a decade. Is that "helpful"? I doubt it. If I were you, I wouldn't want to know more. Spoilers are odious, irrelevant, and available elsewhere. If you love Chandler, Hammett, Roth, and I.B. Singer, I suspect you will love this.
Put some Manischewitz in a lowball and sit by the electric fire and crack this book open.
98 of 119 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2007
Welcome to Alaska, the temporary home of a large Jewish colony now on the edge of repatriation. Chabon has set his sights high, again, but this time there seem to be so many pieces to put in place, so many portraits to paint in his newly formed universe, that at times the book feels more like a heavy wade than a pleasure. Sure, we all know Chabon can write his contemporaries off the page, but I have the feeling this will be remembered as a novel that landed just wide of the target. If you're going to play with a genre like mystery, you take on not just machinations of plot, but also of pacing and that's my main gripe despite the gorgeous prose. After 150 pages of a mystery, you'd usually like to know more than that the story revolves around the body of a former chess player. It's hard to think of a writer with Chabon's skill doing anything that isn't deliberate, but just because he sets his new world in Alaska, did it have to move at such a glacial rate?
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2007
As far as concept is concerned, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is pure gold, delving into an alternate reality where it took an extra year and an atomic bomb to defeat Nazi Germany, the settlement of Israel was a catastrophic failure, and the 3.2 million Jews who might have called it home have been deposited on a rocky stretch of Alaskan coast with nowhere to go once their lease expires. As far as humor is concerned, the book is also a success, as Chabon's wit (in particular his observations regarding the bizarre genetic caste system that governs the magical world of Disney) never fail to enliven his already excellent prose, which, incidentally, may well be the best part. Chabon conjures picture-perfect metaphors with the same amount of effort you or I might expend by eating a sandwich, and these glorious examples of figurative language lend a level of vibrancy and depth to the District of Sitka and its inhabitants one rarely has the good fortune to encounter. He excels again in creating a distinct feel for the setting, making an Alaskan exile city populated almost exclusively by Jews (with an inexplicable smattering of Filipinos) seem as real as if they were your noisy next-door neighbors. Even his characters are interesting, though it must be noted that A) Any character is interesting when you can write dialogue like Chabon can, and B) If you can make a Jewish Eskimo policeman boring you do not deserve to write. So, to recap: Concept? Huzzah! Characters? Wheeee! Writing? The crowd is ebullient! And thus it is that we come to the plot.
Now, it ought to be stated up front that the plot is not necessarily the most important facet of a book, especially if it is so superb in these other categories. Indeed, the plots of many great novels can be discerned by the time you reach the copyright information. Regrettably, TYPU is a detective novel, a genre which requires all the aforementioned values only as a sugary coating to make its colossal plot-pill go down easier. It is very nice when mystery novels have well-developed characters, and it is even nicer when they are well written, but in the end trying to write a mystery without a good plot is like trying to bake a birthday cake and omitting the cake batter: no matter how much icing, sprinkles, and candles you add, you still end up with a sticky pile of amorphous chocolate that, if not watched properly, will gleefully burn down your house.
Though the plot shows some initial promise, Chabon loses control swiftly and completely, and by the end it becomes clear that each character's importance to the book is inversely proportional to the time they spent in it. In other words, it's the ones you've only seen once before two hundred pages ago that you gotta watch. What is left of the rapidly atrophying story finally devolves into a series of progressively more ludicrous revelations, until at last the book has lost all credibility and you expect to learn at any time that Jews are only robotic decoys created by a loose confederation of particularly ingenious polar bears. Ultimately it is a diverting but hollow experience, and though Chabon's exquisite use of both the Yiddish and English languages makes it worthwhile, by the end you will be hard pressed to say exactly where it went.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2007
When did Michael Chabon become one of our finest living writers? I've been reading his novels for about two decades now, loving each successive work more. Suddenly I realize that he is one of those rare writers where you go out and buy the book full price on the day it's released. He's that good. And The Yiddish Policeman's Union lived up in all ways to my high expectations.
The novel grabbed me right from the opening pages. We meet Meyer Landsman, a somewhat down on his luck homicide detective. We meet the victim, a John Doe in the cheap hotel Landsman calls home. We meet Meyer's cousin/partner, his ex-wife/boss, and many, many other supporting characters, each more richly-drawn than the last.
I must confess summarizing plots is not my strong suit. However, unlike many "literary" novels--and it is as literary as they come--this is most definitely a plot-driven novel. It's a who-done-it, and perhaps more importantly it's a why-done-it. Because as Meyer and Berko investigate the execution-style murder of this young addict, the world they live in is revealed to us. And it's possible that this alternate universe is the most interesting thing about the novel. It's a world where the European Jews fled from Hitler to Alaska--a premise based on a historic trivia fact. They've populated Sitka and made it their own for the past 60 years, and in just a few weeks they need to get out. Alaska is "reverting" back to the Americans in much the way that Hong Kong recently reverted to the Chinese. The oft-repeated refrain of these characters is "Strange times to be a Jew." True enough.
And if nothing else, this sure is one Jewish murder mystery. It's chock full of Yiddish, a joy for me, but surely not for a majority of the novel's readers. A lot you can pick up in context, but Chabon's not going out of his way to help readers there. You'll learn about boundary mavens and Jewish prophesy. It's all very exotic, but so richly and realistically portrayed. Chabon brings this world that never was to life, and it's fascinating. And while the mystery surely kept me turning pages late into the night, it was my pleasure in the characters and the setting and the world created that made me truly, truly love this novel. Reading simply doesn't get any better than this.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A hard boiled homicide detective, beaten by the world, finds himself awoken, bottle in hand, by the manager of the flea bag motel where he now finds himself in residence. Another resident, a junkie, has been murdered, bullet to the back of the head, assassination style. Likely this set up sounds familiar, the opening to countless novels penned by Mickey Spillane/Raymond Chandler wannabes. Not so for Michael Chabon's gripping "Yiddish Policeman's Union" for this detective, Meyer Landsman works the mean streets not of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles but the Sitka Alaska Federal District, home to 3 million Jews given temporary refuge in 1939 from the growing maelstrom of Hitler's Europe.
Chabon's novel weaves such a creative and tight web one hardly knows where to begin. With the author's well researched alternative history where the Jewish State of Israel fails still born in 1948 and the so-called "Frozen Chosen" build a home in the far north? With his cleverly imagined Yiddish slang and the fully realized city of Sitka, offered to the reader in such detail that one can smell the cheese on the blintzes in the cafeteria where Landsman often dines, see the snow on those dark cold streets, remember the short lived excitement of Sitka's hosting the '77 World's Fair, and taste the famous cherry pie served by the non-Jewish couple in Sitka's airport? Or, perhaps, this being a work by Michael Chabon, a reviewer should dwell on the themes of alienation, identity, and redemption which form the current that runs through all of that excellent author's work? Any of these would be worthy topics to consider and I could wax poetics regarding the "Yiddish Policeman's Union's" success with each.
Yet spending too much time on any of these might detract from the pleasure readers are sure to find in this wonderful novel. As with Chabon's previous work, the perfectly sculpted sentences, laden with pathos and a sly wit, will surely give readers pause. Likewise will you come to feel you know his characters as though old acquaintance, such as Berko, Landsman's cousin and partner, a half Indian orthodox Jewish bear of a cop, with his two children and a third on the way. For all of these reasons, any reader will find much to delight in this excellent novel, perhaps Chabon's best to date. With skill and humor, he has elevated the noir genre, paid homage to the likes of Raymond Chandler, and given you a gift that you will surely treasure.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
When I read this book I was stunned by its imaginative premise--that the State of Israel failed in 1948 and the U.S. offered part of Alaska (the Sitka District) for settlement by Jews from around the world. I learned later that this idea was actually floated by FDR, but never acted on. With the support of then-U.S. President Harry Truman and the resilience of its people, Israel survived and thrives almost 60 years later. Still, while no longer amazed, I'm still very impressed at how completely Chabon imagines and describes this cold world of the Jews, inhabiting Sitka on a 60-year lease from the U.S.
While operating at the same high level of imagination as in his triumph, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon writes a much different book here. The scope of time is something less than a week rather than 50 years; the action is all "confined" to the Sitka District, large but still smaller than Kavalier's world that stretched from Prague to Antarctica to New York City. Kavalier was historical fiction at its best. Yiddish is a whodunit wrapped up in a made-up history. The closest parallel I can think of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America in which the U.S. elects isolationist Charles Lindbergh as President while war rages in Europe, with the kidnapping of Lindbergh's baby acting as the whodunit.
All this is not to say that the reader is somehow shortchanged by "Yiddish". Into the murder mystery, Chabon works in world class chess, Hasidism (which at some level resembles the Mafia), bush pilots, the Judeo-Eskimo community (there's one he probably had few live experts to consult with), espionage, Judeo-Arab tensions, protagonist Meyer Landsman's challenge of doing police work for his now supervisor ex-wife, along with a whole host of Yiddish cultural references that can't be enumerated without better understanding of that culture and more space. Lurking in the background is the "reality" that the 60-year lease with the U.S. is about to expire and only a small number of Jews with "useful" jobs will be allowed to remain. Now that I write all this, my evalution of the breadth of Chabon's imagination is working its way back toward amazing.
I'm not sure how the reading public will handle "Yiddish". Chabon fans will enjoy it, but will be making the impossible comparison to "Kavalier." Detective story fans make me disoriented by the imaginary setting and all its unfamiliar cultural references. Someone looking for historical fiction might be put off by both the made-up history and the seemingly simple-minded detective story about a murdered chess player.
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is not quite a 5-star book, but at 4.5 I'll round up for Chabon's amazing imagination. I recommend the book to all Chabon fans and to the adventurous among readers of current American fiction. A work by such a special talent has to be given a chance. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Well-read teenagers might enjoy it too--there's nothing in here that's particularly offensive, but it's a long step from typical young adult novels to "Yiddish".
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2007
What if? tends to be a favorite pastime with writers. Sometimes you end up with so-so writing, other times, very rarely, you get a story that packs a punch and a real whallop along with a few good laughs. This was the result that I got with Michael Chabon's latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union.
Policeman Meyer Landsman lives in Sitka, in a run-down misery of a hotel. He was married once, had a promising career once, but now he's self-medicating with booze, and his trusty sidearm. Then the night manager pounds on his door and he goes off to investigate the room of a fellow 'guest' of the hotel who has been found dead.
Emanuel Lasker has a tidy hole in the back of his head, track marks on his arm, his tefillin in a side-drawer, and a partial chess game laid out nearby. No real identification, nothing at all to give a sign as to who he really is. It's a case that's interesting, but without any real leads.
Besides, Landsman has far bigger problems to worry about. The year is 2008, and the sixty year lease is about to be up in the Federal District of Sitka, when the erstwhile home of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and the failure of the state of Israel have been scrapping out a living. This seething population of the Chosen are just about to be tossed back into an unfriendly, rather hostile world, and nerves and tempers are getting frayed.
But Landsman can't seem to let go of the case, and he and his partner, Berko -- a hulking half-Tlingit, half-Jewish -- head off to explore the past of the dead man. Along the way, the reader is treated to life in Sitka, where racial tensions are high, chess masters play endless games, Ultra-Orthodox gangs are scheming and up to no-good, and everyone is hoping that a miracle will happen and a new Exile doesn't begin.
I do have to say that I haven't laughed over a thriller like this in a long long time. Landsman, Berko, Bina, Willie Dick, and even the Verbover Rebbe, along with a host of other characters, have a believable, earthy quality of mercy and menace to them, turning them into believable people, each of whom have a stake in the very uncertain future.
Chabon laces his story liberally with Yiddish slang, Jewish politics, religion, modern fears, old hates and gives it all an earthy stench. For me, it raised the ghosts of being in the old New York neighbors of my childhood, where Orthodox Judaism was the way of life, and even today, the smell of cabbage, wool clothing and some words can bring it all back just as vividly.
It's a smart novel too, filled with plenty of clues for the reader to piece together, if they pay attention along the way. No, this novel isn't for everyone, and those who are unfamiliar with Yiddish may have a hard time catching the subtler use of words here -- for unsnarling some of that, I'd suggest any of Leo Rostein's glossaries of modern Yiddish. There's also some good, deep emotional involvement for the reader as well, as everyone in this story is carting along some emotional baggage that will help or hinder them in this story.
Chabon's writing is smart, witty, and tears along at a breakneck pace. The action scarcely ever stops in this one, as Landsman and his sidekick Berko careen along from place to place, uncovering dreams, plots and some nasty conspiracies. While the ending of the novel was pretty disturbing to me, I wasn't surprised by it either.
It's a great summer read, and a pretty decent 'what-if?' story. Yes, it does get a bit graphic in spots, and at times outright zany, but it's certainly different and if you are tired of formula stories of world-weary cops, take this one in.
The only thing that I didn't really like was the cover design, with the lurid red and turquoise printing. It's more than a little headache-inducing, and hard to read. Oh well, you can't have everything.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2007
Imagine for a moment the world today if, instead of victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the nation of Israel had suffered defeat. Those Jews who had established residence in Palestine were expelled from their homeland. They turned to the United States for assistance and were awarded a portion of land in the territory of Alaska in the Federal District of Sitka. Now, one-half century has passed and a policy has been enacted by the U.S. that will evict all Jews without recognized legal status from Sitka. Sovereignty over that land where Yiddish is the official language and power is exercised by Hasidic Jews will terminate on January 1, 2008.
This historical underpinning for THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION is but one of countless ironies that saturate the novel. Jews in Alaska find themselves being treated in a fashion similar to Palestinians in the contemporary Middle East. This is the universe that Michael Chabon has created, the existence of which raises countless provocative questions for Jews and Gentiles alike.
Lest readers believe that an Alaskan Jewish homeland is the groundwork for a political novel, THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION is actually a detective saga in the 1940s style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Chabon's sleuth is Meyer Landsman, a down-on-his-luck Sitka homicide cop called upon to investigate the murder of a drug addict who resided in the same rundown hotel as Landsman. The investigation takes the detective into a strange world of Lubavitch Orthodox gangs and crime-boss rabbis.
The dead man who used the leather straps of his tefillin (Jewish prayer artifacts) to tie off his arms prior to injecting heroin into his veins was also the son of a powerful rabbi in Sitka. Like any detective caught in an investigation where powerful people have a vested interest in the outcome, Landsman and his partner, Berko Shemets, must be full-time investigators and part-time diplomats. Throughout the investigation Chabon reminds us of his constant refrain, "It's a strange time to be a Jew."
Reading THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION one cannot help but notice the irony and complexity of Chabon's writing. The Jews of Sitka are in many respects the Palestinians of the 21st century. They owe their existence to the largess of others and know not what the future portends. By focusing his novel on a Jewish character toiling as a police detective, Chabon is seeking to establish for readers that the true nation of Israel is a nation like all other nations, where people toil in all professions seeking nothing more than to be left alone in their daily endeavors. It cannot go unnoticed that the protagonist of this novel is named Landsman, the Yiddish word for a fellow countryman. Sitka, Alaska, the erstwhile home of the Jewish nation, is where we all come from.
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION is one of those rare books that many will think is remarkable, while some will find it intolerable. It will offer different interpretations for different readers, and you may have to read it more than once. There is no doubt, however, that this book will be widely discussed in the coming months and even years. In the future, Michael Chabon may be mentioned in the same sentence with Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud for this work of enormous ambition and insight.
--- Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman