RARA-AVIS: My Summer Reading List: THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION by Michael Chabon

From: Brian Thornton ( tieresias@worldnet.att.net)
Date: 20 Jul 2007

Just finished this book, and I'm surprised that I haven't seen any discussion of it on this list, especially in light of all of the enthusiasm some of the Rara Avians showed for Cormac MacCarthy's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE ROAD earlier this year.

Chabon is well-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning work THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND KLAY, and as a public and unabashed fan of so-called "genre fiction." And with THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION he uses the detective novel (in this case featuring a homicide detective named Meyer Landsman) as a vehicle for exploring such ideas as guilt, atonement, redemption (and literally "redeemers" in the sense of "messiahs"), the role of the individual within a larger family, and conversely, the role of the family in the larger individual.

And he does this with prose so powerful, characters so sharply drawn, imagery so crisp, pathos so evocative as to make you want open a vein by the end of act I, all wrapped in the kind of snake's-back-of-a-plot that would have made Ross MacDonald at his best seem like Robert B. Parker.

What's more, Chabon creates a completely plausible fictional world as the back-drop (and as with all of the best settings, as a character in its own right): an alternate reality in which the United States started allowing Jewish refugees from fascist Europe to settle in a "federal district" shaved from the panhandle of the then-Alaska Territory in 1940. These Jews, the so-called "Sitka Jews" develop their own twist on Jewish exile: a region where Yiddish is spoken first and "American" second; with its own customs, slang, government, police force, and the over-arching, uncomfortable knowledge that the Federal District of Sitka is intended to "revert" to Alaska after 60 years. The action of this novel takes place two months before "reversion" is slated to occur, with Jews uncertain of their future once the local natives take back their islands in the district fleeing for climes like "Sunny Saskatchewan," Argentina and Australia (In this timeline the post-war state of Israel c
 ollapsed in the 1948 war, so there is no "homeland" for these Jews to return to, with Palestine under Arab control).

This situation makes for a lot of tension within the plot, and serves as one hell of an effective back-drop for a murder investigation by the protagonist, a (stop me if you've heard this before) burned-out homicide detective circling the drain: drinking problem and smoking problem intact; marriage in the toilet; career headed down a dead-end alley. The character of Meyer Landsman is one of the great literary homages to an honored archetype. The fact that Chabon is able to pull this off without turning Landsman into a composite stereotype (whiny Jewish loner detective) is no mean feat.

There's lots more. This is a dark book, hard-boiled, bleak landscape, hopeless situation, black humor, sarcasm, the importance of friendship, the price of loyalty, big themes, played against the backdrop of a long Alaskan winter.

I recommend it without reservation.

All the Best-

Brian Thornton

[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 20 Jul 2007 EDT