As Michael Chabon would tell it, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed establishing a refugee camp in Alaska for persecuted Jews fleeing Nazi-Europe. Whether or not this bit of historical trivia is accurate, I do not know, but Chabon takes the idea and runs with it, presenting Sitka as the Alaskan home for the “Frozen Chosen”. The agreement was that the camp would last sixty years, and thus, this community of Jews gave birth to new generations who had never known life outside Alaska, and yet knew that their time in the place of their birth was coming to an end, as the contract was about to run out. The main character of Chabon’s newest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is Meyer Landsman-a modern day Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, but with the twists of being both Jewish and, it would seem, manic depressive. Like his predecessors, however, Meyer possesses a profound drinking problem, and a knack for luck and smarmy observation. The story begins as Meyer is awakened by the night manager of the Hotel Zamenhof, where he lives. One of the other tenants is dead, obviously killed, and Meyer, as both an obsessive policeman and paranoid king of a ransacked castle, start the investigation immediately.
His investigation leads him throughout Sitka, where he’s confronted by family-all old, some missed, and some unwanted; by pious Jewish gangsters-the “black hats”; by chess masters and by, perhaps, the Messiah. Overhanging the whodunit caper is the matter of how, in a short two months, the Sitka Jews will be Diaspora again, with many Jews not knowing what they’ll do, and some, like Meyer, barely caring.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union moves far more quickly than Chabon’s masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but it builds upon Chabon’s goals for his writing. Namely, he manages to infuse an actual story with brilliant prose and three-dimensional characters. The book makes heavy use of the Yiddish language, as well as its accompanying Jewish culture, and every one of its quirks are put to fine comedic, or plot-moving use. The novel reads easily, and beautifully, and it is a kind of well-paced, well-written fiction that should be celebrated at every turn.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Hardcover: 432 pages