As a former (ha!) fanfiction writer and reader, I’m always down for an alternate universe storyline. And “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon is just that. The premise of the novel that the state of Israel collapsed in 1948, causing the creation of the Federal District of Sitka in the Alaskan panhandle for Jewish refugees. For sixty years, the Sitka Jews have created their own world, but now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control.
Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective for the District Police and his life is, well, a mess. His marriage is wrecked and his career a disaster. His cousin and partner Berko Shemets can’t catch a break in any cases and the new supervisor is Landsman’s ex-wife. Then a murder is committed in the cheap hotel where Landsman is staying. So what does Landsman do? He investigates the killing of the former chess prodigy despite being told to drop the investigation. Landsman contends with many forces — faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, salvation, himself — to solve the gripping whodunit case.
I have to admit: I struggled a little to finish this book. I’d read a few chapters, then want to go do something else. Maybe I was in a reading slump. Maybe my mind wasn’t as interested in the book as I thought I’d be. Maybe I was more excited about reading the next book on my list than actually reading this one. But after giving myself a day to mull it over, I’ve pinpointed some of the reasons for my struggles.
One reason was all of the descriptive sentences. Don’t get me wrong — I love reading descriptive sentences. It helps put me where the characters are, and gives me a sense of what they’re feeling. At first, I enjoyed Chabon’s descriptions:
The rest of Sitka’s homicides are so-called crimes of passion, which is a shorthand way of expressing the mathematical product of Alcohol and firearms. — Chapter 1
With the smell of Pinky on his collar and the cool dry ghost of Goldy’s hand in his, he plays goalkeeper as a squad of unprofitable regrets mounts a steady attack on his ability to get through a day without feeling anything. — Chapter 6
But after awhile, it seemed like it was page after page of descriptions. How many different ways can Chabon say that Landsman has a drinking problem? (Note: I lost count before I even knew I should be keeping count. Though for the record, I liked the first reference: “He picks up the shot glass that he is currently dating, a souvenir of the World’s Fair of 1977.”)
Another reason is that while the plot was indeed gripping, it dragged along. I wanted Landsman to jump to the clues quicker. Find the answer sooner. Something. It wasn’t until nearly halfway through the book that I felt like I was getting into the storyline. Perhaps, again, it was the description. And Landsman revisiting memories.
But I think both of those reasons play into who Landsman was as a character. As a detective, he needs to note the details — all of them, no matter how tedious. With each reference to alcohol, the reader can see how Landsman’s reliance on it has taken a toll on him. If the crime had happened 10 years earlier in his life, would he have solved it sooner? Would the book moved a little quicker?
There were times when I felt I could relate to Landsman, but by the end I found myself wondering who I’d rather hear the story from. Perhaps Bina Gelbfish, Landsman’s ex-wife and new supervisor, who has to deal with her alcoholic ex-husband clinging to the chess prodigy murder case? Some of my favorite lines in the book were hers:
‘See this sweetness?’ Bina has fished out her badge. ‘I’m like a cash gift. I’m always appropriate.’ — Chapter 44
The day you ever have that much control over my behavior, it will be because somebody’s asking you, should she get the pine box or a plain white shroud? — Chapter 46
Or maybe from the point of view of the chess prodigy’s mother (I’m leaving her nameless for now because spoilers). Despite being in only a couple of scenes in the whole book, I wanted to know more about her than I did about Landsman rambling on about how much he hated chess.
I just want more female narrators; is that too much to ask?
Narrator choice and struggles aside, I’m glad I read this book. Though Chabon uses a lot of descriptive sentences, I could definitely take note and not be afraid to think outside of the box when it comes to my own writing.
A vein of rust twists in the water like the ribbon in a glass marble. — on tea steeping in a glass, Chapter 44
Plus if I hadn’t read it, I would’ve missed out on some nice quips like Bina’s quotes above.
The book also addresses the spectrum of religious affiliation: from the devout to those who have given up on religion altogether. While the book specifically looks at Judaism, the sentiments can be applied to any religion.
So would I recommend “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”? Probably, but not to just anybody.