Published by Harper Perennial on Jan. 2007
“Every generation loses the Messiah it fails to deserve.”
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union presents an alternate version of history in which the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska has been designated a temporary safe haven for Jewish refugees and their descendants following the Holocaust and the collapse of the fledgling state of Israel in 1948. Now, 60 years after Sitka was first settled by Jews, the district is due to revert to Alaskan control and its inhabitants are, once again, faced with losing their homes.
It is among this uncertainty that Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective with the District Police, operates. Living in a cheap hotel, divorced by his wife, his career going down the drain, and drinking more than he should, Landsman’s life is a wreck — a wreck that is further complicated by a murder in the very hotel in which he spends his lonely nights.
Although his superior officer — who also happens to be his ex-wife — instructs him to drop the case, loose-cannon Detective Landsman defies the order, trying desperately to discover the truth about the man who was shot through the head while lying drugged next to a chess set in his hotel. With the help of his partner, Landsman’s half-Indian cousin, he commences an investigation involving criminals with deep pockets, chess champions, a supposed Messiah, and the U.S. government.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I actually bought it four years ago (I think probably just because the cover design is amazing) but couldn’t get beyond the first 20 pages. Now, with an entire college education between my first, attempted read and my current self, I decided to give it another go; I’ve grown, my reading taste has matured a bit, and I’ve heard great things about Chabon. Additionally, his latest book, Telegraph Avenue, to be released in September, has been getting a lot of buzz and seems like a really fun read. So believe me that I really wanted to like this book; however, I was disappointed.
It may be just because I’ve never been into detective books that I didn’t like this novel much. I just couldn’t really bring myself to care a whole lot about why this junky was murdered or to even hold my breath a little when the main character was being shot at. Maybe detective books just don’t do it for me, but I found the story a bit boring.
The one technical complaint I have about this novel is Chabon’s tendency to put long descriptions or internal flashbacks smack in the middle of a conversation. Without a section break, re-entering the conversation was often really jarring and awkward, forcing me first to be disoriented by the change in tense and setting, and then to go back a multiple paragraphs — or even pages, in a few cases — to remind myself of the question eliciting Landsman’s delayed two-word response. Some conversations lost their flow and were hard to follow because of descriptions and internal ramblings inserted into strange places.
On the plus side, I did like Chabon’s writing, for the most part; it is rich with lush descriptions and wonderful metaphors. Although some of his creative touches were a bit odd (in particular, the description of a character’s voice sounding like an onion rolling around in the bottom of a bucket — what?), others were really beautiful.
“She puts a hand to his mouth. She has not touched him in three years. It probably would be too much to say that he feels the darkness lift at the touch of her fingertips against his lips. But it shivers, and light bleeds in among the cracks.”
Although I didn’t particularly love this book, I think someone who likes mystery/detective novels would really enjoy it.
For those who have read more Chabon than me, how does The Yiddish Policemen’s Union stack up to his other books? I know The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize, but I don’t really know anything else about it, other than that it has something to do with comic books? (Right?) What are your thoughts on this prize-winning author?