Tuesday, 14 April 2009
Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007)
Edition: Fourth Estate, 2007
Alaskan detective Meyer Landsman is a mess, and the country he lives in is a mess. Following the destruction of the fledgling state of Israel by its neighbours in 1948, the southern part of Alaska, around the town of Sitka, is opened up for Jewish settlement by the American government. Now, after sixty years, the federal lease is about to come to an end, and no one knows what is going to happen when it does. When Landsman's marriage breaks up, he moves into a sleazy Sitka hotel, to drink himself to death. A bad day starts when the hotel manager wakes him up because the man in the next room is dead, not from the expected heroin overdose but because he has been shot, execution style. Then Landsman discovers that his ex-wife, also a police officer, is now his boss, and that the corpse is the missing son of the head of an extreme Orthodox sect, before being ordered off the case. In true "maverick cop" style, this just makes him work harder, to find out who doesn't want him to discover the killer, and why.
Chabon's alternate history is interesting, and reasonably believable. I could easily imagine Israel destroyed in 1948, and with a little more effort the choice of Alaska - not then a state of the USA - as an alternative Jewish land makes sense: the territory was under the control of an American federal government sympathetic to the post-war plight of the Jews, and it was not already heavily populated. The sett up feels as though it should be making the ingredients of a farce, butt the novel is not humorous, apart from the odd one-liner and the exaggeration of the maverick stereotype in Landsman: this is not Woody Allen. For a novel which is described as "a homage to 1940s noir", I'd really expect more sharpness.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel I really expected to enjoy. Other people thought it was really good, I'd enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by the same author, and felt that the idea behind the story would make an interesting setting. But in the event I found it heavy going. The depression of the protagonist, the desperate sense of impending doom over the Jews of Sitka, and the nastiness of many of the other characters are all contributing factors, making it hard to enjoy reading the novel. This is not necessarily a reason for not reading, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union is not the first or the most depressing book I have read, by a long shot. The suggestions for why it is hard going could equally well be said of 1984, though the theme of rebellion against authority there works better at holding the reader's interest - Winston is not as clichéd a character as Landsman. Perhaps Chabon just struck a chord with me, though I can't see what it would be. I am not, after all, a Jewish policeman investigating the murder of a heroin addict.
Often a book which is difficult to read providers other pleasures, but although it is undoubtedly well written, I did not really feel that I gained much from The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Perhaps if more had been made of the chess playing metaphor, or there had been more humour, I would have enjoyed it more. In the end, I would personally rate The Yiddish Policemen's Union at 6/10.