44. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007) 411 p.

In 1940, when World War II was still nothing more than a distant brouhaha to the Americans, the U.S. government considered opening up Alaskan settlement to displaced European Jews. The proposal was killed in Congress, largely due to Anthony Dimond, Alaskan delegate to the House of Representatives and a major opponent of the program for financial reasons (officially) and anti-Semitic reasons (allegedly).

In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Dimond is killed in a car accident before the bill can be overturned, and a section of Baranhof Island in the Alaskan panhandle is opened up to Jewish settlement. History is tweaked; Jews flock to Alaska, less remain in Europe, the Nazis therefore spend less effort on killing them than they do in fighting the war, the war drags on for longer, and the 1948 Israeli independence movement is unsuccessful. The U.S. District of Sitka becomes the international Jewish homeland; cold, distant and just as bitter as the Diaspora itself.

And so this is an alternate history novel: science fiction, in keeping with Chabon’s recent desire to experiment with genre fiction. But it’s also a detective novel, in which alcoholic homicide detective Myer Landsman must solve the execution-style murder of one of his junkie neighbours in the seedy hotel he calls home. Naturally this leads him on a noirish investigation into the dark heart of Sitka, the Hasidic Jews and their organised crime, his chess-addicted former espionage director uncle, the mysterious connections and conspiracies, the men in suits from the U.S. government. This takes place in late 2007, shortly before the “Reversion” on New Year’s Day 2008: the return of Sitka to U.S. territory, leaving a teeming city of Jews with nowhere to go.

Chabon’s style is, as usual, heavily reliant on visual metaphors. I have no issue with this (it is, in fact, my favourite style of writing) but it’s strange to see it applied to a detective novel. And in fact I’m not sure if that’s what this is. So many genres are blended in this book that Chabon sometimes seems to lose sight of them. The detective cliches come down thick and fast for the first few chapters, before drifting off as Chabon focuses on his usual heavy themes of literary fiction. It’s a great book, certainly five stars, but it just seems a lot less sure about itself than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was. Granted, Kavalier & Clay was Pulitzer material which I personally consider to to be the greatest novel written in the last ten years. So The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, while it can’t measure up to its heavier older brother, is nonetheless a great read that I can reccomend to pretty much anybody, provided they’re willing to struggle through Chabon’s complex prose for the rewards that lie on the other side.

It also won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, which I think is a lot like sending David Beckham to play a game of soccer with a group of 12-year old kids and then giving him the award for best player.

“I did not know this man. He was put in my way. I was given the opportunity to know him, I suppose, but I declined it. If this man and I had gotten to know each other, possibly we would have become pals. Maybe not. He had his thing with heroin, and that was probably enough for him. It usually is. But whether I knew him or not, and whether we could have grown old together holding hands on the sofa down in the lobby, is neither here nor there. Somebody came into this hotel, my hotel, and shot that man in the back of the head while he was off in dreamland. And that bothers me. Set aside whatever general objections I might have worked up over the years to the underlying concept of homicide. Forget about right and wrong, law and order, police procedure, departmental policy, Reversion, Jews and Indians. This dump is my house. For the next two months, or however long it turns out to be, I live here. All these hard-lucks paying rent on a pull-down bed and a sheet of steel bolted to the bathroom wall, for better or worse, they’re my people now. I can’t honestly say I like them very much. Some of them are all right. Most of them are pretty bad. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let somebody walk in here and put a bullet in their heads.”

Books: 44/50
Pages: 13, 439

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