Monday, May 21, 2007


The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

By Edward Copeland
There's always something astounding about "discovering" a new, talented writer, but that's how I felt when I first read Michael Chabon upon the publication of Wonder Boys. Every page seemed to have a wonderful turn of phrase or plot development that left me giddy with awe. Here was an author somewhat close to my age, who showed promise as being able to stand on the same high plane with my other literary idols such as John Updike or Philip Roth. Hell, Chabon even seemed to manage to be both a great prose stylist and a great storyteller, an imagined fusion in my mind — Updike Roth, if you will.

Wonder Boys prompted me to seek out his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I loved nearly as much. Then came the long wait until his next one, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another great effort from the rising star of the young literati. However, then things started to dry up a bit. He penned a child-like fantasy novel called Summerland and a short Sherlock Holmes-type riff titled The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. While I enjoyed both of them well enough, they didn't sate my longing for a full-fledged Chabon masterwork. Thankfully, that wait has ended with the publication of The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the skin left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe's frock coat and trousers. It would required the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn't make any difference in what you see.

The above passage is just one of the many sprinkled throughout The Yiddish Policemen's Union that left me in awe in much the same way certain Updike passages can do. While I don't think it's quite up to the level of his first three novels (Wonder Boys remains my favorite), the new book displays yet another example of Chabon trying something new without sacrificing the gifts that made me worship him in the first place.

The premise of The Yiddish Policemen's Union truly is an imaginative one. In this novel's world, the state of Israel never took off in 1948 and Jews were forced once again to flee their homeland, this time for a most unusual promised land: the Sitka District of Alaska, formed before Alaska was even officially part of the United States. The haven came with a catch: the Jews would only have the land for 60 years and the lease is about to expire, a process known as "Reversion."

That premise alone would provide for a fascinating alternate universe, but it's just the setting for what essentially is a murder mystery. The lead gumshoe is a down-on-his-luck homicide detective named Meyer Landsman, irreligious and broken in terms of his career and his personal life. In fact, the slaying occurs in the seedy motel he's currently calling home. The victim turns out to be a former chess prodigy hiding under an assumed name, the troubled son of an important rabbi.

To tell much more would spoil the unfolding of the plot, which shows that this killing cuts deeper than your run-of-the-mill murder. Still, the mystery isn't what drives The Yiddish Policemen's Union to near greatness: It's Chabon's style and ingenuity. He uses what could be just a fictional flight-of-fancy and weaves a tapestry that simultaneously pays homage to detective lore and historical fiction, creating something unique and fulfilling. Chabon truly is back and lovers of novels should be grateful.

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i'm glad to read the good reviews.

i loved mysteries, adventures, and wonderboys...

but couldn't finish summerland and was disappointed with the final solution.

i've been debating how quickly i would jump to read this book...glad to read you liked it.
I knew they were making a movie but hadn't heard about the changes. I'm always surprised when books I love get turned in to good movies anyway that's why I was so impressed with Curtis Hanson's version of Wonder Boys. Of course, it will have a long way to go to be the disaster that DePalma's version of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities turned out to be.
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