Michael Chabon is a brilliant writer, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a masterful, scintillating book. It’s lyrical as a poem, funny as a Shecky Greene monologue, and engaging as a crossword puzzle. It’s the kind of book that makes lesser authors (like me) want to throw their laptops through the window and take up careers in online marketing.
And yet I don’t recommend it.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a hard-boiled police novel, set in an alternate universe in which the state of Israel failed in 1948. The homeless Jews were (grudgingly) offered a home in the Alaska panhandle, around Sitka. There they have lived for almost 60 years (the book is set in 2007), but next year the mandate runs out, and the land is scheduled to be returned to the Tlinkit Indians (that’s pronounced “Clinkit,” by the way. You probably didn’t know that. I know it because I spent a summer in the Shumagin Islands, long ago).
It’s in this climate of insecurity and futility that police detective Meyer Landsman is taken to view the body of a gunshot victim in the seedy hotel where he’s lived since his divorce. The body turns out to be that of a once-famous young man, a chess prodigy, rabbi’s son and miracle worker who many thought would be the Messiah. Depressed, self-destructive, alcoholic, Det. Landsman sets about solving the mystery, sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by his half-Tlinkit partner and his ex-wife, who is now his boss.
Be warned—the rest of this review includes spoilers. Not spoilers about the plot, but about the meaning of the book. Of course, I may have misunderstood the meaning altogether, as ordinary chess players in this novel are baffled by the moves of the great masters. But I’ll tell you what I got out of it, for whatever that’s worth.
The lesson of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is that the real danger in the world comes from the devout, whatever their religion. Chabon has cleverly, in his alternate universe, created a world without Islamic terrorism (because we all know there’d be no Islamic terrorism if there were no Israel). But there is terrorism nevertheless, coming out of those famously vicious groups, orthodox Jews and Christian evangelicals.
This book, it appears to me, is the heart-cry of the assimilated, secular, self-hating Jew. When the Muslim terrorist says it’s all the Jews’ fault, Chabon (it would appear) hangs his head and says, “It’s true. But it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of those black hats. They’re just crazy.”
So the book saddened me. I should also mention that I read it to the end, though—something which I rarely do with books that offend me deeply. This one was just too good to put down, even when I thought it morally perverse and dangerous.
Cautions for language apply—not only obscenity and cursing, but actual blasphemy. Also a lot of jokes about Jews that no Gentile could get away with.
Read at your own risk.