Book: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Every now and then I read a book that is so delicious that I savor it.  Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was one of those books.  I finished it over the weekend on a run through the mountains.  A number of folks have recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  It’s up next. 

At least two of the people who recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay told me they couldn’t get through The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  This perplexed me. As I read through the Amazon and Shelfari reviews of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I realized the disconnect.  While I read 99.9% of the books, I listened to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on my iPod over the course of a month while running.  I’ve been trying to find the right books to listed to while I go for my long runs (I often run naked – with no headphones) and I’ve only found a few that I really enjoyed.  The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was one of them.

Amy told me she loved reading the book.  I loved listening to the book.  I tried to craft a good summary, but I couldn’t top Elizabeth McCracken’s description from the Washington Post so I’ve copied it here (I’m sure this is illegal in some countries, but my guess is that Meyer Landsman would give me a pass on it.)

“Reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is like watching a gifted athlete invent a sport using elements of every other sport there is — balls, bats, poles, wickets, javelins and saxophones. The book begins with the introduction of a hung-over detective to a gun-shot corpse in a fleabag hotel. Classic noir, except that the detective drinks slivovitz instead of bourbon: He’s Jewish, a kind of Philip Marlovsky named Meyer Landsman, though Landsman is a cop — a “noz” in the yiddisher slang of the book — not a PI. The whole local police force is Jewish: The book is set in a present-day alternate reality in Sitka, Alaska, a safe haven set up for Jewish refugees after World War II and the collapse of Israel. Now, after nearly 60 years, the Federal District of Sitka is about to revert to American rule. There are elements of an international terrorist thriller, complicated by religious conspiracy and a band of end-of-the-world hopefuls, and yet the book has a dimly lit 1940s vibe. Maybe that’s just because of what Jews and movie dicks have always had in common: felt hats and an affinity for bad weather.”

Like all good detective stories, there are multiple stories within the story.  We get chess, Alaska, Jewish food (shocking, I know), yiddish, love, self-loathing, murder, power, relationships, Alaskans, mysterious deaths, messianic shit, end of the world crazies, and occasional complicated sex written in a way that shows up the craft (writing and sex) magnificently.  I thought Chabon’s storytelling was brilliant.  On top of it, the reader of the book on tape (Peter Riegert) was ridiculously good.

You don’t have to be Jewish to love this book.  It helps, but it’s not necessary.

  • Wow, auto-smartlinking works really well on your blog.

  • DonO

    I wish I would have gone the audiobook route with this one also. I love the author and really enjoyed WonderBoys, so I had to read this one for the title alone. I struggled getting through it also even though I loved the setting and characters. I liked the chess subplot best.

    I have a recommendation for you also when you go to find some new mental floss because you turned me on to the “Rain” series through your reviews. I just finished one of Ian Rankin’s books and his main detective character, John Rebus, reminded me a lot of Meyer Landsman. Rebus is a hard-boiled Scottish detective and the setting/environment really draws you in deep. I thought the book I read from the series, Resurrection Men, was well written and the plot was tied up nicely by the end. Another bonus with Ian Rankin is that he’s apparently a neighbor of JK Rowling, which is how I originally heard of him because he was quoted in an article as saying that the Harry Potter author was working on a novel from his genre.

    Good reading!