Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I think this is the newest book I've ever read. He published it this May, and the cover is the main reason that I absolutely had to have it. This is the first in a series of reviews I'm doing called "my birthday presents."

This is the second of Chabon's books I've read, so my expectations were set pretty high. Unfortunately, it's hard to measure up to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Basically the premise for this book is an actual Senate proposal from the 1940s that, should the Jews lose Israel in WWII, the USA would give them a piece of Alaska. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Jews from Israel, Germany, Poland, the Ukraine, and other parts of Europe have all migrated to the newly created Sitka District of Alaska. Chabon never actually goes says how the war ended, or what the political situation is in Europe now, he just lets readers guess at that, I suppose. It's set in the early 21st century, and the District is about to be revoked, meaning that the last of the world's Jews will have nowhere to go in two months from the novel's opening. The story follows Sitka District Detective Meyer Landsman, who is one of my new favorite characters (Chabon also wrote another of my favorites, Joe Kavalier). He's basically an embellished stereotype: the washed-up, renegade cop who doesn't play by the rules. But Chabon manages to make him a lot more human than that; he's easy to sympathize with. Landsman sets about solving a murder that shows up in the dingy hotel he's been living in, which turns out to be a case much bigger than he originally thought.

Landsman notices how quiet it is on Verbov Island, in the snow, inside a stone barn, with dark coming on, as the profane week and the world that profaned it prepare to be plunged into the flame of two matched candles.

"That's right," Zimbalist says at last. "Mendel Shpilman. The only son. He had a twin brother who was born dead. Later, that was interpreted as a sign."

The whole book is wildly imaginative, full of Yiddish puns that I really didn't understand (if you know why a Shoyfer should be a name for a cell phone, please tell me), and a few that I did (a restaurant named "Hands of Esau"). It was a great tribute to 1940s noir, with everyone in porkpie hats, smoking like chimneys and solving crimes involving Russian mobsters. The dark and gritty noir feel meshed strangely well with the Yiddish puns and snappy dialogue. Unfortunately, at times, the gimmick got in the way of the story. Having such a far-fetched setting has to be incredibly hard to pull of (David Mitchell managed it with Cloud Atlas unbelievably well). The book lost steam towards the middle, landing in an uncomfortable zone where it was too realistic to be surreal, but too far-fetched to feel believable. It picked back up at the end, and was a great, unique read. I'm still a Chabon fan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it's a version (Yiddish pronunciation of a Hebrew word)of Shofar-
a rams horn blown on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur.
really loud
It's like calling your cellphone a trumpet, makes sense, no?
Landsman= countryman- a salutation
The copy I read had
a glossary in the back (which I didn't need)
Shpil= play as in theater or game