The Yiddish Policemen’s Union I give it 5 stars

Some years ago, after reading and loving Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I poked around his web site and came across a remarkable essay by the name of “Say it in Yiddish.” It starts as a set of wistful reflections on a Yiddish phrasebook for travelers, and then spins out into a fantasia on the idea of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in Alaska.

Chabon came through Seattle for a reading later that month. When I got to the head of the receiving line, I used my few seconds of author time to tell him how much I had liked “Say it in Yiddish.” He was visibly surprised. Only after a moment of you-didn’t-really-just-say-that bafflement did his expression turn to gratitude. It was as though his natural emotional reaction had been filtered through a disbelief filter. He thanked me, saying that he didn’t often hear that. Then he signed my book with a flourish and a sketch of a key (the symbol of the Escapist from the comics in Kavalier and Clay.)

At the time, I chalked his reaction up to the obscurity of the essay. Only later did I learn that that the essay had attracted a fair amount of controversy. Several leading scholars of Yiddish thought that it was an attempt to make fun of them or of the language. I think now that what surprised him about my praise for the essay was not that I was mentioning it at all, but that I was praising it.

Well, Chabon has now turned the essay into a novel, for which my praise knows no bounds. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union turns his conceit of an Alaskan Jewish homeland into the setting for a detective story. In this alternate universe, the Federal District of Sitka was carved out of Alaska as a temporary resettlement area for European Jews during the Second World War; now, sixty years later, it is a few months away from “Reversion,” and everyone is nervously awaiting the unknown next stage in the ongoing exile of the Jews. Against this backdrop, down-on-his-luck homicide detective Meyer Landsman washes up in a cheap residence hotel, where one of his neighbors turns up dead. More out of a sense of personal affront than anything else, Landsman starts poking his nose around, discovers that powerful unknowns want him off the case, turns up some unexpected connections to an insular messianic Hasidic sect, and deals with the usual assortment of beatings and surprises any detective protagonist must endure.

Chabon’s Sitka is a gloomy, cantankerous place. An atmosphere of decay and depression pervades the novel, a sense of desperation as this dark and cold homeland is running out its days. He has a talent for tossing off scene-setting details casually, as though they are simply a part of the background knowledge that everyone shares: a snack of pickles dipped in sour cream, the Big Macher department store, a leftover landmark from the 1977 Sitka World’s Fair now locally known as the “Safety Pin.” It is such a perfectly realized place that both the characters and the plot grow naturally in its frigidly alien soil.

The writing is also spectacular. Of course there are Yiddishisms everywhere, from colorful words like noz and shtarker to phrases that are clearly English renderings of Yiddish originals: “sweetness” (from bubeleh) and “bang me a kettle” (from hak mir nisht ken tshaynik). The dialogue is florid and insult-laden, and Chabon is good enough at the rhythms of Yiddish complaint that you can tell the genuine invective from the disgruntled banter that his characters speak as a matter of idiom. He intends for the whole novel to read as though it were a loose translation from a Yiddish original, and it does.

Add to these virtues of atmosphere and language the usual qualities one expects from a Chabon novel: a compelling plot, sympathy for all of his characters, moving reflections interlaced here and there, a memorable sentence at least once a page, an instinct for universal human weaknesses and surprising strengths. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is neither better nor worse than Kavalier and Clay. Both are as good as one could hope for in a novel, each in its own way. I didn’t read this one in one sitting, but I wish that I could have.