Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

It's hard to talk about this book without talking about the world it's set in. During World War II, before the state of Israel, Alaska was a serious contender for the new homeland of the Jewish refugees from Germany and across Europe. It had the support of the US secretary of the interior, but died in Congress. The point is, it could have actually happened.

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, it did actually happen. Meyer Landsman is a detective -- complete with failed marriage and drink dependency -- in the Jewish settlement of Sitka, Alaska, and there's a dead body in the crappy hotel he lives in. Oh, and it's two months until the 50-year lease on Sitka runs out, and the whole of Jewdom is going to have to go to sea in a sieve. (Yes, Chabon references Ed Lear. Yes, that made me happy.)

While the point of the novel (in my humble O) is the gentle and thorough exploration of a world where Sitka is a Jewish settlement coming to an end, that's not the obvious focus. Sitka is outlined, coloured in and shaded through the details and framework of a clever, noirish crime novel.

The first dead body is found on page one, next to a half-finished chess game. The victim lived under a false name, hustled chess to buy smack, and may well have been the Messiah, naughty boy or otherwise. The whole thing excels as a crime novel; the dialogue is sharp and fast and beautiful, the supporting cast excellent, and the detective often hopeless.

It's this focus on the crime novel that makes the world of Sitka so convincing. Alternative worlds are never as convincing as when they exist exactly where the real world exists for us; in the background, unworthy of comment, while life happens in the foreground.

So far, so good. A compelling idea, a clever story, etc etc. But there's something even better about this book.

I usually don't pay much attention to 'fine prose'. I like prose that gets me straight into the story, and lets me forget about the fact an author once sat at a computer or typewriter and made it all up. The only time I'm drawn to clever prose is when it's funny. When it's Vonnegut or Wodehouse.

But I had a revelation with Policemen's Union. For some reason, I read out a line or two aloud... and it felt good. Very good. So I started reading more of it aloud, when I was alone. Then I started reading it aloud in my head, which I promise makes sense. The mere act of reading it like that brought much more attention to the particular shape and feel of the words, and -- crucially -- stopped me unconsciously skimming descriptive passages.

The allusions and connotations and sideways connections throughout the text opened up a whole new dimension of writing to me, which I feel a bit naive for having not spotted up to now. It was only last month I was initially put off from a very good book by overly-clever description, but Chabon is pitch-perfect. There is a deadpan, slightly sad humour throughout, and a romantic realness in everything.

Once again, I have been utterly surprised by the content of a Chabon novel -- they're never alike. And once again, I've really loved it. If I told you I wasn't jealous, would you believe me?


  1. what would have happened to the Jews once the lease ran out? whats the political background to it? eeeee!

  2. Great way to describe this fantastic book - the fact that it works on multiple levels! I usually hate alternative reality fare, but this was fantastic, because, as you said, it felt so real. And again, I could agree more about usually skipping the praise for an author's prose - if s/he doesn't write great prose, s/he wouldn't get published! But Chabon's a step above. I've never tried the reading out loud idea, but maybe will now. Cheers for a great review!

  3. This sounds like an interesting crime novel.

    I like your idea of reading out loud in your head. I totally got what you mean. Once I'm in the flow of a specific authors style I tend to start skimming long descriptive scenes when I'm more interested in the outcome then the work the author put into that paragraph. I'll have to give your method a try. Hell, maybe it'll even get me through Lolita!

  4. The book does look interesting!
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  6. The only Chabon I've read is Gentlemen of the Road and I wasn't impressed. I've heard, though, that The Yiddish Policeman's Union is different. I'll give it a shot someday.

    I'm visiting from the Hop--have a great weekend!

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