Thursday, June 19, 2008

Books: The Yiddish Policeman's Union


If you've read any of Michael Chabon's previous novels (Wonder Boys, Kavalier & Clay), you already know what to expect from "The Yiddish Policeman's Union." It's a noirish detective novel set in an unlikely place - Sitka, Alaska. I grabbed it after finding myself desperately short on reading materials on the way back from Chicago, and I thought it merited some discussion.

The "gimmick" of this novel is that Sitka, Alaska is populated primarily by Jews after the destruction of the nascent state of Israel in 1948. The protagonist, a police detective named Meyer Landsman, is investigating a murder, but the place where he does so is a completely realized, fictional environment full of Yiddish slang, Orthodox Jewish gangsters, and colorful characters.

I liked "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay," and this book is almost as good. The structure of the book sticks to convention, but it works both as a conventional detective story. Chabon wisely refrains from banging people over the head too much with the alternate history stuff - it's no "Fatherland" or "The Man in the High Castle." The whole thing moves at a brisk pace, and, for someone acquainted with basic Judaism (I grew up in south Florida, after all - I must have attended at least half a dozen Bar Mitzvahs growing up), some of the sections of the book are riotously funny.

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