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The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon
Narrated by Peter Reigert, unabridged
Harper Audio, 12 hours, 39 minutes

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon's works of fiction include The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, A Model World, Wonder Boys, and Were-Wolves in Their Youth. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, and Playboy and in a number of anthologies, among them Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a novelist, and their children.

Michael Chabon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
SF Site Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nicki Gerlach

Meyer Landsman is about as hard-boiled as detectives get. He lives in a cheap flop-house of a hotel, and smokes too much, drinks way too much, and works obsessively -- besides abstractly thinking about suicide, drinking and working are what gets him through his days. He's divorced and estranged from his ex-wife Bina, who is now his superior officer, and he's plagued by family ghosts -- his chess-obsessed suicide of a father, his sister Naomi, a pilot who crashed her Piper Cub into a mountain, the tiny voice of his aborted baby. He's long on bitterness and short on hope, unable to see anything but the bleakest future for himself or his people. Because, unlike your run-of-the-mill depressed and hard-bitten police detective, Landsman is also facing Reversion.

The story takes place in Sitka, Alaska, a small town on the Pacific side of the southern Alaskan panhandle. In the alternate reality of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, the U.S. Congress designated this small sliver of the inhospitable Alaska Territory in 1948 as a settlement location for European Jewish refugees. (This settlement act was actually put before Congress in the early 40s; however, Roosevelt refused to back it and so the bill died.) The fictional Congressional authorization was only valid for sixty years, however, and the novel opens a few months before the Jewish settlement reverts back to U.S. control -- the dreaded Reversion. Faced with the prospect of being evicted from yet another homeland, Jewish civilization in Sitka is starting to fray around the edges: there's mass emigration, and while some people are struggling to get permits that will allow them to keep working in Gentile-owned businesses, others -- like Landsman -- are facing the coming apocalypse with a shrug and a shot glass.

Although the Sitka Central Police Department has been told to wrap up their outstanding cases in order to have a clean slate to hand over at Reversion, Landsman can't stop himself from getting involved when a man is murdered in his own hotel. The victim -- known only by the pseudonym Emmanuel Lasker -- was an avid chess player and a heroin addict, shot cleanly and professionally in the back of the head. Landsman, along with Berko Shemets, his half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner, eventually track down the victim's real identity -- the only son of the local crime boss, a worker of small miracles, and a likely candidate for the Tzaddik-ha Dor: in certain Jewish traditions, the one born into each generation who has the potential to become Messiah and lead the Israelites back to their former glory. As the story follows Landsman through interviews and investigations, it becomes clear that while it is at base a murder mystery, it is at heart a novel about redemption in the face of annihilation -- both the redemption of the Jewish people and Landsman's personal redemption.

I think it is a testament to Michael Chabon's writing that I enjoyed this book at all, let alone enjoy it as much as I did -- me, who reads detective stories only when they're disguised as something else, and whose sum knowledge of Jewish culture and customs comes from a friend occasionally sharing a kugel. It's not taking the place of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as my favorite Chabon novel; in fact, I don't think it's even placing in the top three, but Chabon's a good enough writer that distinctions at this level have to be drawn with a pretty fine line. The writing is lovely, embellished and fancy but not purple, and frequently punctuated by a dry and biting sense of humor. Chabon has a degree of world-building to do -- not so much as your typical science fiction or fantasy novel, but Jewish life in his fictional Sitka is not a familiar world to most readers -- and he handles that with flair, adding in Yiddish-isms and eccentric cultural details without ever tipping over the line into caricature. The main characters are well-constructed as well, flirting with every cliché in the book and yet somehow coming out feeling entirely original.

I was originally a little apprehensive about listening to one of Chabon's books instead of reading it -- Chabon's got a gift for crafting these wonderful little nuggets of language, and I frequently have to go back and re-read a sentence or a paragraph just to let its beauty roll around for a while -- harder to do with an audiobook than with the print version. However, I needn't have worried. What the prose loses in slow savorability it makes up for with an increased flow and rhythm by being spoken aloud. It took me a while to get used to Peter Riegert's voice; he's got a low gruffness to his voice that is appropriate to Landsman, but is not typical in audiobook narrators. However, after the first disc or two, it became hard to imagine anyone else reading the book. Riegert handles the frequent Yiddish words and names with fluency, something with which I certainly would have struggled were I reading the book myself.

The only real issue I had with this book was its ending, and I think that's a matter of perspective. If you go into this book treating it as a detective story or a crime novel, then the ending does kind of fizzle out, wrapping up the various loose ends yet lacking any proper sense of resolution. If you approach it as a cultural study and a piece of speculative fiction, the ending, while still not spectacular, is at least appropriate to what we know about the characters and the situation. And, if you look at this novel as a piece of literary fiction, as a treatise about the means and ways of redemption, the ending makes perfect sense, and it couldn't really have ended any other way.

That sums up the book as a whole; it's a genre-hopper, but I think writing it off as "just a detective story" or "just an alternate history" would be doing it a disservice. Fans of all of the relevant genres, as well as fans of Chabon, or just those who like imaginative and well-told stories will find something in this book to interest them, and something in it to surprise them. This book also includes an interview with the author on the last CD, primarily discussing the origins of the idea of Jewish Sitka and the character of Landsman.

Copyright © 2008 Nicki Gerlach

Nicki Gerlach is a mad scientist by day and an avid reader the rest of the time.  More of her book reviews can be found at her blog,

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