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The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novelby Michael Chabon
This book's premise is FDR's suggestion, back when Israel was being created, that the Jewish Diaspora settle in Alaska. Chabon makes that scenario a reality, except that when the book begins, the Sitka District is set to revert to Alaskan control. Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective who has one last case to solve before losing his livelihood due to said reversion. Of course, this case has all sorts of problems, diversions, dead ends, and sideways tacks to keep Landsman and his cohorts busy for 400-plus pages. Chabon has created a humorous and sad world as only he can, combining a love story, a Chandleresque noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption. Another stellar novel from Mr. Chabon.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon returns for another literary tour de force. In a "what-if" story for adults, Chabon imagines that Alaska was turned into a Jewish state after World War II. Combining speculative and detective fiction with his own distinctive literary stylings, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an unforgettable novel.
"Echoing Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, Chabon has taken a potential but unrealized historical twist and fashioned it into an entertaining literary novel, one that asks many pertinent questions and, in its alternate reality, seems a perfect fit for the post-9/11 world....Chabon demonstrates once again with The Yiddish Policemen's Union that he ranks among the most important, and interesting, contemporary American novelists." Erik Spanberg, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
"There's no doubting the entertainment on offer here; but I could not help feeling tantalized, as I was zoomed along the hairpin plot, by glimpses of more lastingly nourishing fare. Dangling over this generic crime story are a fabulist's profound concerns about the spiritual and political directions actually taken by Jews and, for that matter, by a United States touched by fanatical Christianity. It's tricky, though, to reach for such offerings when you're holding on to your hat." Joseph O'Neill, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
From the New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize comes a monumental work of imagination and his first full-length adult novel since the bestselling Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
What if, as Franklin Roosevelt once proposed, Alaska — and not Israel — had become the homeland for the Jews after World War II? In Michael Chabon's Yiddish-speaking "Alyeska," Orthodox gangs in side curls and knee breeches roam the streets of Sitka, where Detective Meyer Landsman discovers the corpse of a heroin-addled chess prodigy in the flophouse Meyer calls home.
Marionette strings stretch back to the hands of charismatic Rebbe Gold, the leader of an extremist Orthodox sect whose influence runs powerfully through the web of Sitka society — but behind the rebbe looms an even greater provocateur....Despite sensible protests from Berko, his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner, Meyer is determined to unsnarl the meaning behind the murder. Even if that entails surrendering his badge and his dignity to the chief of Sitka's homicide unit — also known as his fearsome ex-wife, Bina.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union interweaves homage to the stylish menace of 1940s noir with a bittersweet fable of identity, home, and faith. It is a novel of colossal ambition and heart from one of our most important and beloved writers at work today.
"[Signature] Reviewed by Jess Walter They are the 'frozen Chosen,' two million people living, dying and kvetching in Sitka, Alaska, the temporary homeland established for displaced World War II Jews in Chabon's ambitious and entertaining new novel. It is — deep breath now — a murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller, so perhaps it's no surprise that, in the back half of the book, the moving parts become unwieldy; Chabon is juggling narrative chainsaws here. The novel begins — the same way that Philip Roth launched The Plot Against America — with a fascinating historical footnote: what if, as Franklin Roosevelt proposed on the eve of World War II, a temporary Jewish settlement had been established on the Alaska panhandle? Roosevelt's plan went nowhere, but Chabon runs the idea into the present, back-loading his tale with a haunting history. Israel failed to get a foothold in the Middle East, and since the Sitka solution was only temporary, Alaskan Jews are about to lose their cold homeland. The book's timeless refrain: 'It's a strange time to be a Jew.' Into this world arrives Chabon's Chandler-ready hero, Meyer Landsman, a drunken rogue cop who wakes in a flophouse to find that one of his neighbors has been murdered. With his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner and his sexy-tough boss, who happens also to be his ex-wife, Landsman investigates a fascinating underworld of Orthodox black-hat gangs and crime-lord rabbis. Chabon's 'Alyeska' is an act of fearless imagination, more evidence of the soaring talent of his previous genre-blender, the Pulitzer Prize — winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.Eventually, however, Chabon's homage to noir feels heavy-handed, with too many scenes of snappy tough-guy banter and too much of the kind of elaborate thriller plotting that requires long explanations and offscreen conspiracies. Chabon can certainly write noir — or whatever else he wants; his recent Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Solution, was lovely, even if the New York Times Book Review sniffed its surprise that the mystery novel would 'appeal to the real writer.' Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style. Characters have skin 'as pale as a page of commentary' and rough voices 'like an onion rolling in a bucket.' It's a solid performance that would have been even better with a little more Yiddish and a little less police. Jess Walter was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for The Zero and the winner of the 2006 Edgar Award for best novel for Citizen Vince." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"What sort of writer is Michael Chabon? The question, especially considering his terific new novel, 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union,' is complicated. Of course he's literary, author of the Pulitzer-winning 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' and other marvelous books of fiction. His work is page-turning and poignant; he is one of the best writers of English prose alive. But Chabon has an... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) avowed interest in forms considered perhaps less than literary. He's edited two anthologies of pulp-inspired stories for McSweeney's, written a 'story of detection' featuring Sherlock Holmes, and he 'presents' a comic book quarterly starring one of the superheroes of 'Kavalier & Clay.' He's interested in busting the chains of everydayness that bind many so-called literary writers: He wants to move and thrill us both, and he does. Reading 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' is like watching a gifted athlete invent a sport using elements of every other sport there is — balls, bats, poles, wickets, javelins and saxophones. The book begins with the introduction of a hungover detective to a gunshot corpse in a fleabag hotel. Classic noir, except that the detective drinks slivovitz instead of bourbon: He's Jewish, a kind of Philip Marlovsky named Meyer Landsman, though Landsman is a cop — a 'noz' in the yiddisher slang of the book — not a PI. The whole local police force is Jewish: The book is set in a present-day alternate reality in Sitka, Alaska, a safe haven set up for Jewish refugees after World War II and the collapse of Israel. Now, after nearly 60 years, the Federal District of Sitka is about to revert to American rule. There are elements of an international terrorist thriller, complicated by religious conspiracy and a band of end-of-the-world hopefuls, and yet the book has a dimly lit 1940s vibe. Maybe that's just because of what Jews and movie dicks have always had in common: felt hats and an affinity for bad weather. The prose is Chandlerian, too — lyrical, hard-boiled and funny all at once: 'In the street the wind shakes rain from the flaps of its overcoat. Landsman tucks himself into the hotel doorway. Two men, one with a cello case strapped to his back, the other cradling a violin or viola, struggle against the weather toward the door of Pearl of Manila across the street. The symphony hall is ten blocks and a world away from this end of Max Nordau Street, but the craving of a Jew for pork, in particular when it has been deep-fried, is a force greater than night or distance or a cold blast off the Gulf of Alaska. Landsman himself is fighting the urge to return to room 505, and his bottle of slivovitz, and his World's Fair souvenir glass.' Landsman, macerated in brandy and sadness, becomes interested in the hotel corpse, though he has enough dead bodies in his own past to keep him busy: a never-born child, a possibly murdered sister and a father who committed suicide, not to mention the ghost of his marriage to a Sitka policewoman. Landsman calls up his partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, a half-Jewish half-Tlingit big man with a soft heart and what passes in this novel for a happy home life. The corpse turns out to be a chess prodigy and heroin addict, the wayward son of a powerful head of a Jewish sect called the Verbovers, and possibly the key to the essential mysteries of both his own death and the future of the Jews. Landsman and Shemets are on the case, even though any number of people try to throw them off. There are plenty of twists, and the detective finds himself knocked unconscious at the end of more than one chapter and muzzy-headed at the start of the next, which is what it means to be the hero of novels that aren't strictly literary. The book calls to mind another recent bad-for-the-Jews speculative novel by a major writer, 'The Plot Against America.' But while Philip Roth's alternate history asks, 'What if?' Chabon's is an explosion that simply says, 'Look here!' He sets about imagining the whole strange world of Aleyska, American-flavored but not American. The pure reach and music and weight of Chabon's imagination are extraordinary, born of brilliant ambition you don't even notice because it is so deeply entertaining. He invents every corner of this strange world — the slang of the 'Sitkaniks,' their history, discount houses, divey bars, pie shops. Despite the complications of the plot, the details of the world are every bit as enthralling. You read so that you can keep following Landsman through doors and down alleys as he pieces together the corpse's past and worries about his own. You can't wait to see what kind of compelling oddball steps out of the next wedge of shadow: the pie man's sad daughter, the 4-foot-7 Tlingit police inspector named Willie Dick. (It's possible that Chabon has too much fun with his names at times.) Toward the end, the book falters a bit. It's not exactly a cartoon gone off a cliff — a loss of 'the foolish coyote faith that could keep you flying as long as you kept kidding yourself you could fly.' Still, it's as though Chabon the virtuosic athlete looked down at his legs and got confused as to what kind of sport he was actually playing. The solution to the murder mystery feels like the last piece of a puzzle snapped into place instead of a startling revelation; the international thriller ticks away offstage; some of the banter is too Howard-Hawks-perfect; and what happens to Meyer Landsman seems like what the book and its conventions — as distinct from fate — require of him. Still, what goes before is beautiful and breakneck; Chabon is a master of such contradictions. 'Something wistful tugs at his memory,' he writes of his hero, 'a whiff of some brand of aftershave that nobody wears anymore, the jangling chorus of a song that was moderately popular one August twenty-five summers ago.' That is part of Chabon's project as well, to conjure up the music, smells, architecture, fashions — the soul, in other words — of worlds utterly imaginary, and yet palpably lost, and make us nostalgic for them. The moving, shopworn whiz-bang of historical visions of the future — world's fairs, Esperanto, a belief that the Jews of the world will stop wandering and find a peaceful home somewhere on the planet — Chabon loves, buries and mourns these visions as beautiful but too fragile to live. The future will always be a fata morgana. In this strange and breathtaking novel, the wise, unhappy man settles for closer comforts. As Landsman says, toward the end of the book, 'My homeland is in my hat.' Elizabeth McCracken is writer in residence at Skidmore College." Reviewed by Marie AranaElizabeth McCracken, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Chabon manipulates his bulging plot masterfully, but what makes the novel soar is its humor and humanity....Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ran the book-award table in 2000, and this one just may be its equal." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[A]n alternate-history novel that succeeds as both a hardboiled detective story and a softhearted romance....A page-turning noir, with a twist of Yiddish, that satisfies on many levels." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[W]ildly inventive....Raucous, acidulous, decidedly impolite, yet stylistically arresting, this book is bloody brilliant — and if it's way over the top, that's what makes Chabon such a great writer. Highly recommended." Library Journal (Starred Review)
"[B]uilds upon the achievement of Kavalier & Clay, creating a completely fictional world that is as persuasively detailed as [Chabon's] re-creation of 1940s New York in that earlier book, even as it gives the reader a gripping murder mystery and one of the most appealing detective heroes to come along since Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"It is very good — let's just say that at the outset — a larger-than-life folk tale set in an alternate universe version of the present where issues of exile and belonging, of identity, nationality, freedom and destiny are examined through a funhouse mirror that renders them opaque and recognizable all at once." Los Angeles Times
"[A] raucous, energetic novel that proves again Chabon's brilliance at inventing entire alternate worlds that are grounded in the truest of details and yet have a soaring, near fantastical quality." Houston Chronicle
"It's disappointing to find this novel to be little more than a jokey pastiche of the generic noir detective story, rather than the wished-for full-blooded literary novel. What's even more disheartening is witnessing such a talented writer wasting his ability and the reader's patience with such an inept and offensive piece of work." Pittsburgh Post Gazette
"Some readers will adore this book and admire its undeniable originality, rich language and audacity. Others will hate it and find it bleak, overwrought and bewildering. But it will provoke strong reactions." USA Today
"Chabon is attempting to cross Raymond Chandler with Isaac Bashevis Singer, and his hybrid is bracing and fun, and not only because the women in The Yiddish Policeman's Union are more than male foils." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] virtuoso imagining....The alternate universe he plays in is jokier and cartoon-broader than usual, but Chabon the serious artist means business....By the end, the plot bulges like a fatty pastrami sandwich. But in such an unholy land, what's not to love? (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union is certainly entertaining, a sprawling, poignant Judaic carnival on the tundra, where European Jewish culture might have ended up, had it not been destroyed." Chicago Sun-Times
"It's half-brilliant but half-boring, maybe because Chabon has so fallen under the sway of his creation that he lost control of its tenets." Boston Globe
"The hardboiled language of pulp spills from Chabon's characters'....[A] vibrant reimagining of the roman noir." Oregonian
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay pens an homage to the stylish menace of 1940s noir, in a novel that imagines if Alaska, not Israel, had become the homeland for the Jews after World War II.
For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.
But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.
At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.
About the Author
Michael Chabon is the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Werewolves in Their Youth, Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Summerland (a novel for children), and The Final Solution. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
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