It’s not very often that I read a book that I just don’t like very much. The back cover of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is replete with admirable praise for the work using words like “awesome, breathtaking, dazzling” to describe the novel. While I can appreciate the narrative strength and the alternate history of the settlement of Jews in Sitka Alaska and the threat of their imminent eviction from the territory, the book took so many twists and turns that I just lost interest at times.
Basically The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a detective novel featuring the misanthropic alcoholic detective Meyer Landsman. After separating from his wife Bina (now his boss) Landsman takes a downward slide to nowhere’s ville. He lives in a seedy hotel at the edge of town where one day one of the hotel’s residents is found with a bullet in his head. It turns out that the victim is Mendel Shpilman, a heroin addict, estranged son of the rebbe (also a powerful gangster) with a gift for chess and possibly the Tzaddik-ha Dor or the messiah,
This seems to me like the beginnings of a great story.Landsman is funny, troubled, with a gift for his own kind of prophecy. Shpilman, is of course, also a compelling character…a child prodigy ruined by religious rigor and prejudice with a magic ability to touch even the most hardened amongst the Sitka neverdo’wells. Bring in Meyer’s cousin Berko Shemetz, his half native cousin, best friend and fellow detective and you have the makings of a rollicking great read. Never mind that there is another dead body to chase; Landsman’s sister died earlier in a suspicious plane crash.
I loved all of this…and at the end of the day these characters kept me going right through to the very end. Damnit. The dialogue was hilarious but it was all the words in between that got in the way. As the king once said to Mozart (at least in a movie) “too many notes Herr Mozart, too many notes”. The story goes that Michael Chabon wrote more sparingly than he has in his other works. My feeling is that it could have been even more sparing.
I could give you more details of the never ending twists and turns in the plot but I can’t remember them and there were too many. Wikipedia does an excellent job though. Next.