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Saturday, May 12, 2007
Department of Book Reports Volume 15
Posted by SeattleDan
As a rule, I think it’s a waste of time to talk about books that are bad, so I talk about books I like and like a lot. I try not to give in to using superlatives, though. But I will ignore that rule for now. I must say that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (HarperCollins $26.95), Michael Chabon’s homage to forties noir and speculative alternate history, is by far the best book I’ve read this year, and it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read.
The plot is based on the premise that the fledgling Israeli state failed in 1948, and a great many of the Jews took up the United States offer for a temporary homeland centered on Sitka, Alaska. Set in the present time, Sitka has become a metropolis of 3 million people, and has hosted a World’s Fair in the 1970’s. But soon the lease will expire and many of the Sitkans are up uncertain as to what will happen when the town reverts to Alaskan control. The story hinges on a murder investigation, led by the down-on-his-luck detective, Meyer Landsman, of a chess-playing heroin addict who has a surprising past. The case becomes Meyer’s obsession, even when ordered off by his boss, and ex-wife, Bina, ultimately losing his badge, but continuing on, using his Policeman’s union card for identification.
The narrative is told in the present tense, giving the story an immediacy and vividness. The characterizations are strong, well-imagined and without the hint of being stereotypical. One is Meyer’s detective partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, who is half-Jewish and half-Tlingit. And there is a host of striking minor characters. Here is Professor Zimbalist, talking about the murder victim:
“…Mendele wasn’t like that at all. He made toys for his sisters, dolls out of clothespins and felt, a house from a box of oatmeal. Always glue on his fingers, a clothespin in his pocket with a face on it. I would give him twine for the hair. Eight little sisters hanging off him all the time. A pet duck that used to follow him around like a dog.” You can hear his voice; you think this a real man.
The prose is by turns, lovely, elegant, and tough, with many of the sentences having the lilting beauty of spoken Yiddish, reminding me of the beautiful melodies of Klezmer music. There are the updated Chandleresque metaphors: “He narrows his eyes as if he’s trying to spot typographical error on the face of a counterfeit Rolex”. And Chabon uses olfactory imagery I haven’t read since Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: “Two dead humans in the snow. The smell of popcorn, a buttery stink of feet, overwhelms him”.
The tag line is “Strange times to be a Jew”, and indeed they are.
Do yourself a favor and, if you are going to read only one novel this year, read this one.
All props to democommie™™™™®© who served as Michael Chabon’s muse for this novel.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union will be available signed on Wednesday at Jackson Street Books and Seattle Mystery Bookshop, or at fine independent bookstores everywhere!