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The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
by Michael Chabon
It’s been several months since I’ve done a Books to Savor post, but that’s not for lack of reading. I still read quite a bit, though most of my reading is along the lines of parenting books and articles since someone–and I won’t say who–plopped into my life. But I do still read a novel or two, and during the first hazy, bleary-eyed weeks of parenthood, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is one I picked up.
I remember sitting on the couch, with little Cy in my lap having fallen asleep after nursing. I couldn’t move for fear of waking him. But what was I going to do with myself while he caught up on some Z’s? I spotted the teal and white spine of this book announcing itself on our bookshelf just beside the couch. It’s not one I normally would have picked for myself–I think it was a gift someone gave my husband?–but on that particular day, it called to me. I flipped to the first pages, not really knowing what I had picked up, and as Cy slept, I read. At the next nap, I kept reading. It wooed me slowly, and I was about a quarter of my way into the book (read over the course of several short baby naps) before I realized I had been seduced.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a novel that bridges genres. It’s part murder mystery, part noir, and part alternate history, with a whiff of love story. In this story, Jewish refugees have been thriving in a temporary safe haven created for them in Alaska, but their lease on the land is about to come to an end. Meyer Landsman, a talented homicide detective whose life is falling apart around him and career is about to end, lands himself a case: the killing of his neighbor, a young chess prodigy. Just as he starts investigating, word comes down from the powers-that-be to drop the case. This only makes him dig his heels in further. The deeper he gets into the case, the larger it becomes, spiraling outward into conspiracy, involving powerful and dangerous forces.
The plot line itself is fun, but what is most gripping about the story is the characters. Landsman, whose fate is mirrored in that of his people, is beautifully flawed and incredibly human. He feels so real, so tender, and yet hard; determined and yet sad. The characters of his ex-wife and his partner are also beautifully rendered and so recognizable as someone you might actually know. It’s in their personages that you feel the themes of exile and alienation emerging. The prose is equally seductive: terse, yet evocative, and laced with irony and dark humor. The world Chabon creates is incredibly real, and you wonder how he does it with such economy.
I didn’t know what I was picking up when I first grabbed this book, but I read it with relish. If you’re in the mood for something a little sweet, a little sad, a little funny, and yet surprisingly rich, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union might just be for you.