Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Part of the beauty of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union is how a mystery unravels, so I hate to reveal too much in this review. No review fails to mention that the story takes place in a fictitious Alaska, populated mostly by Jews and natives - inspired by the suggestion in 1939 by then Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to make Alaska a Jewish state. Although it's hard to even begin describing the book without that bit of knowledge, I kept thinking how fun it would have been to discover that for myself.

Written like an old noir detective story, the Yiddish policeman is Landsman, who finds himself compelled to solve the death of a junkie chessplayer. He's drawn to the case because of an unfinished game of chess set up in his otherwise sparse room. Chabon employes many of the tricks of the genre, a la Dashiell Hammett, with chapters ending as guns go off, drinks being mixed, the detective being knocked unconscious and so on, all of which I found quite entertaining. Most other writers wouldn't have been able to pull it off, but Chabon's expansive yet poetic style makes it fresh. Check this out:

The place is as empty as an off-duty downtown bus and smells twice as bad. Somebody came through recently with a bucket of bleach to paint in some high notes over the Vorsht's steady bass line of sweat and urinals. The keen nose can also detect, above or beneath it all, the coat-lining smell of worn dollar bills.

Yow-za! It should also be understood that, unless otherwise indicated, all dialogue is spoken in Yiddish, and Chabon has peppered the book with more than a few Yiddish words and phrases. In fact, I had to read the book side by side with one of my favorite references, Hooray for Yiddish!: A Book about English by Leo Calvin Rosten. Ah, I love a book that sends me scurrying to the dictionary, but a specialized dictionary: I'm in heaven. If you don't have it, you're gonna need this: YiddishDictionaryOnline.com.

Like all of Chabon's books, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is thematic, challenging, and deals with issues of belonging, sexuality, identity and place. I'm sure any fan of Chabon will enjoy it, especially if you have an interest in Jewish culture and study, like me.

5 comments:

Kathy said...

Can't wait to get my mitts on this one! I'm currently having fun with The Final Solution. Chabon is sooo good!

kbmulder said...

Oooh, I bet I would like this one. Alaska and Jewish makes me think of my favorite show of all time Northern Exposure.

Kathy said...

Right you are, kbmulder! Northern Exposure was great and who wouldn't love a disc jockey who found his Divinity alma mater in an ad from the Rolling Stone! Rob and I had hoped we would find someone just like Chris to officiate our wedding...

And Ed... Ed was NE's Kramer; one of the best supporting characters ever making completely unexpected appearances all of the time and no one really taking notice of that.

Special K said...

Oh, I was MAD about Ed.

Kathy said...

As in you adored him? He was rather adorable...