Sitting Shiva For Sitka: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This is a great book.

My first encounter with Michael Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I read (and adored) shortly before it won the Pulitzer. I grabbed his next book Summerland on sight, excited that he’d written an out-and-out genre novel1—and was sorely disappointed; it’s a rote, mediocre fantasy novel, a bit like a stale and warmed-over The Talisman. So I approached The Yiddish Policemen’s Union with a certain trepidation, despite its acclaim and fistful of awards.

I needn’t have worried. Chabon tackles not just one but damn near every genre here—alternate history, police procedural, noir thriller, fantasy—and succeeds spectacularly at them all. He even manages to breathe new life into the cliched corpse of the alcoholic, divorced, embittered homicide cop: our protagonist, Meyer Landsman, who is drawn into a spiralling maelstrom of trouble when a junkie neighbour at the down-at-heel hotel he calls home is found with a bullet hole in the back of his skull and an unfinished chess game on his chair, only two months before Reversion.

Reversion, you ask? Well. In this alternate history, a (real-world2) 1940 proposal to turn part of Alaska into a new home for the Jews became law, and the state of Israel foundered before it was founded, so millions of Jews instead fled from Europe to the boomerang-shaped island of Sitka, off the coast of Alaska, and there built a new, Yiddish-speaking city. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union takes place in 2007, when Sitka is due to revert to Native American control, as Hong Kong reverted to China. No one is quite sure what will result, but the expulsion of at least half of Sitka’s residents is expected. “Strange times to be a Jew,” everyone agrees. And they get even stranger when Landsman discovers that the corpse he just discovered is of a man believed by many…

…to be the Messiah. Or, at least, the Tzaddik Ha-Dor—the man born into every generation with the capacity to become the Messiah, if that generation is worthy. Multiple reliable sources tell tales of out-and-out miracles wrought by the murder victim. Unfortunately, this generation does not appear to have been particularly worthy; instead of the Messiah, he became a heroin addict and chess hustler. But there’s more to his murder than that…

Much as I loved Kavalier & Clay, I felt it kind of lost its way in its second half, and midway through Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I feared the same thing was going to happen here. Again, I needn’t have worried3. Chabon’s characters have always been his strength, but here he has a taut, brilliantly structured, Chandleresque story to tell, and that perceived wobble was only a head-fake. The “what’s really going on” revelation is logical, and brilliant, and a little shocking, and echoes horribly in our reality as well.

Does that sound all serious?
Let me reassure you, this book is also ten kinds of fun and one hundred kinds of funny.

The story is a little contrived—nearly everyone of any significance is either family to Meyer or an old family friend—but that’s well within genre convention, and the characters are so memorable that you don’t mind the incestuous plot. Isidor Landman, Meyer’s dead father; Berko Shemets, his half-Indian cousin and partner; Hertz Shemets, Berko’s ruined father; the rabbi of the Verbovers, a gangster sect of Hasidic Jews; Alter Litvak, a mute and aging mercenary—all burn with life. The dialogue is both spellbinding and hilarious; at times the conversations read like the championship round at a fast-paced one-liners’ competition.

My two criticisms of Chabon are that a) his metaphor-rich prose is both slick and gorgeous, but occasionally becomes a little obtrusive to these eyes; b) his female characters tend to be collections of traits more than they are people4. There’s some truth to both in Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The Verbover rebbe’s wife is the only really vivid woman in the book; Meyer’s ex-wife and boss Bina Gelbfish never completely convinces as a person. (I also didn’t think much of the title for much of the book, but the last few pages proved me wrong.)

The setting is brilliantly conceived and vividly described. The little glimpses into the alternate history—offhand references to the Cuban war, Berlin being nuked in 1946, the state of Manchuria, Orson Welles’s film adaptation of Heart of Darkness—are both fascinating and note-perfect. (Except that despite the 2007 date, it’s really a twentieth-century book; there are references to mobile phones and databases, but the Internet does not appear to exist.) Most of all, the surreal city of Sitka, with its Alaskan fog and faux-European buildings and snow-covered roads and Yiddish slang and Filipino Chinese donuts and secret tunnels built by wary Holocaust survivors, feels like a wholly real place that just happens to never have been.

I suspect there are plenty of Judaica references that this gentile (whose exposure to Judaism consists of having read all of Harry Kemelman’s “___day the Rabbi ___” mysteries in junior high, plus whatever might have been osmotically gleaned from living in New York and dating a couple of not-particularly-observant Jewish women) didn’t pick up on. I know a little bit more about chess, an ongoing theme in the book, and I can assure you that the sly chess references are spot-on. Which should come as no surprise. In a novel as good as this, the little details are as perfectly executed as the larger themes.

Kavalier & Clay is about genre, but not of genre.

Uganda was also once mooted as a home for the Jews; I eagerly await Chabon’s take on this notion.

It probably helped that this is Chabon’s second book with these characters; he wrote, and then junked, a 600-page first-person novel with the same crew, and reportedly thinks of TYPU as a sequel to this never-to-be-published first attempt.

I have a tangential rant about this, aimed at authors who appear to have dimly realized that they shouldn’t portray women solely as trophies and victims, but seem to think that completely cardboard female characters are just fine as long as they’re all tough and kickass—so they don’t even try to write women who are, you know, people. The guilty are far too numerous to list, especially in SF. To be clear, this doesn’t apply to Chabon; my much-more-minor complaint in his case is that his women aren’t quite as fully realized as his men.


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