The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Review by Jim Eaton
To compliment a Pulitzer prize winning author for his mastery of the form seems a little like singing the praises of oxygen. When something like this comes along, there isn’t much needs saying. You just look and grin or chuckle or shrug and let it lie.
I’m not sure that Michael Chabon’s Yiddish is for everyone, but those who it’s not for are too busy watching re-runs of the Nanny anyway. And like so many other books I’ve contemplated reviewing after seeing them on someone’s list, this one is fits only the loosest definition of fantasy fiction. Goblins, trolls, castles, and heroes of old you will not find here. What you will find, and for my money these alone make this novel worth the read, is a wicked cascade of similes and descriptions so enviable as to be worthy of the (sadly hackneyed) adjective “priceless.” Chabon has cooked up for us a feast, and it’s a merry, intelligent, depressing, hardcore, hopeful and sumptuous feast at that.
And I’m afraid his prose in this piece might have temporarily Yiddified my inner voice, so bear with the word order. This book is essentially a detective novel, albeit one set in a fictional home for the Jewish people. After World War II ends and (in Chabon’s reality) Israel doesn’t work out, the Chosen wind up in, of all places, a temporary colony in Alaska. There are a few other alternate reality moments that flirt with fantasy, one of which I’ll reveal and one of which is critical to the plot. Berlin has been, to the satisfaction of many who believe in payback being a bitch, long since nuked by the time the story takes place. Another fictional element is that the U.S. intelligence agencies are manipulating world events in order to bring about some misbegotten idiotic results based upon a hostile and solipsistic misreading of the Bible.
Beg your pardon; that part’s not all that fictional. My bad.
The leading man, one Meyer Landsman, is a festival of flaws and possibilities. The characters are alive, dynamically three-dimensional, and refreshingly complicated. Chabon’s world and its collapsing-star reality you completely buy. The analogs of human behaviour are poetic, tenderly ironic and brilliantly designed. Chess is key, but not in such a fashion that it bans the non-chess playing reader. And there is a seemingly self-perpetuating sense of devilish humour that had me choking every other page. How did you do that in a book that has so much darkness and so much suffering in it, Mr. Chabon? Maybe there’s a megapoint in there, nu?
I don’t have much else to say. There are no nits to pick. I salute Landsmann, his compatriots, and their creator. Clearly, this is a writer for the ages, a powerful wordsmith and a uniquely gifted mind at work. Envy him if you must (I do), but by all means read him. I can’t imagine you’ll read a finer book in the fantasy genre. He gives Philip Roth, William Kennedy, and even the venerable Mr. Fitzgerald a run for their money. Black hats off to him.
Michael Chabon was born in 1963, in Washington, D.C. and raised mostly in Columbia, a planned city with utopian aspirations in the Maryland tobacco country. He studied at Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at UC Irvine, and has spent most of the past two decades in California, with brief sojourns in Washington State, Florida, and New York State. Since 1997, he has been living with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a novelist, and their children, in Berkeley.
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