Friday, May 04, 2007

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman's Union imagines that after WWII, Sitka, Alaska became the new Jewish homeland instead of Israel. Enter our anti-hero, Meyer Landsman, a man clearly in a downward spiral. He is divorced from the woman he still loves, his boss, Bina Gelbfish. His sister, Naomi, died in a plane crash under questionable circumstances (he still grieves for her) and in two months, the process of Reversion will take place--the U.S. will give back the Federal District of Sitka to the Tlinglit Indians and the Jews, once again, have to find a home. The rumpled detective with Sitka's finest is called to the scene of a murder at the fleabag hotel where he lives and where he tries to drink himself to death nightly. As he investigates what initially looks like the murder of a spent junkie, he learns the victim, Emanuel Lasker, was not only a chess prodigy (chess plays a large role throughout the book) but was also the son of the Verbover rabbi, the leader of a secretive, ultra-orthodox sect that lives well apart from the rest of the Yids of Sitka. Oh, and Emanuel might have been the Messiah. Nu? Chabon has never been sharper. His similes are consistently clever and evocative and the dialogue is very much in keeping with the tough talk of the hard-boiled tradition but peppered with Yiddish. (I often read this with two Yiddish dictionaries at my side--a first. I don't think it will create a problem for non-Yiddish speakers but there will be some things you miss. Sorry.) It is also laugh out loud funny and his wordplay proves over and over that he is a dangerous man with pen in hand. After winning the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Chabon sold this at auction for big dough and, supposedly, all he had was a page and a half outline. Six years later, it was well worth the wait.

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