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…
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.