In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon doesn’t waste time getting into the plot. The first paragraph reads
Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.
Landsman is our protagonist: a hard-luck cop who’s lost his wife and is experimenting with ever-deeper levels of depression and alcoholism. Lasker’s murder is the case he’ll follow against his better judgment, the orders of his superiors, and the shadowy criminal elements that threaten to maim and murder him.
We know this set-up, and since this is genre fiction we know what will happen: Landsman’s instincts prove correct—the death of Lasker is no normal murder. A tip sends Landsman and his half-Indian, half-Jew partner Berko Shemets to Verbover Island, a stronghold of Jews run like a great big mafia family. It’s here that we find Lasker is really Mendel Shpilman, the lost son of the island’s powerful rabbi. What’s more, many believed Shpilman to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor—the Messiah, one of whom is born into every generation. Needless to say, Landsman’s investigation takes him into higher and higher echelons of power as he slowly unravels a wide-ranging Verbover conspiracy in which Shpilman’s death plays a central role.
As with the first paragraph, almost all of this 432-page detective novel is quick and cheeky. It’s like Woody Allen doing noir: sharp and cynical, but far too intimately acquainted with humor to ever really get dark. Even when Chabon’s narrating a hellish night in which Landsman contemplates suicide, the energetic prose keeps the medium-boiled cop at a distance. Rather than empathize with Landsman, we pity his woeful self-deprecation.
To aid and abet this manic energy, right up to the last the story continues begetting characters. Within a paragraph Chabon’s precise prose brutally pins each, spreading them wide open; after a few pages most go merrily on their way, never to be heard from again. Here is Chabon describing a reporter Landsman and his partner Shemets run into:
Brennan studied German in college and learned his Yiddish from some pompous old German at the Institute, and he talks, somebody once remarked, “like a sausage recipe with footnotes.” A heavy drinker, unsuited by temperament to long twilight and rain.
And then, a mere four pages later, Mrs. Kalushiner, the proprietress of the city’s most degenerate bar:
The heavy steel door swings open with a groan, revealing Mrs. Kalushiner, dressed to go to shul or a job at the bank, in a gray skirt suit and black pumps, with her hair done up in pink foam rollers. In her hand she carries a paper cup filled with a liquid that looks like coffee or maybe prune juice. Mrs. Kalushiner chews tobacco. The cup is her constant if not sole companion.
In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s fine writing is not limited to character descriptions. The entire book is redolent with fresh, imaginative prose, and often Chabon’s imagery doesn’t merely put a pretty picture in one’s head but also secretes surprising complexity. When we come upon a group of Verbover girls “hobbled by their long skirts,” Chabon describes them as “vehement and clannish as schools of philosophy.” Not only does this description elegantly capture the cliquism of teenage girls, it goes us one better, as the “schools of philosophy” brings to mind the staid, prudish flavor of these Verbover girls. (And the quote even doubles back to comment on philosophers.) Throughout, Chabon’s prose continually exhibits this precision, at once carefully polished yet also unfailingly sharp.
Chabon’s storytelling displays equally nimble writing. Although obviously managed so that twists and revelations pop up at just the right moments, the whole thing feels organic. The narration balances between too pedantic and too obscure, and despite the proliferation of characters, clues, and details, the bulk never feels unwieldy. The only exception is the novel’s unfortunate last thirty pages—the full extent of the conspiracy already revealed, these final pages in which Chabon reveals Shpilman’s murderer feel like an overly long, unwanted coda that strangely diminishes the intensity of the book’s showpiece criminal enterprise.
Into this plot Chabon builds a poignant heart, as the centerpiece relationship between Landsman and his ex-wife Bina sizzles with intensity. Not far into the book Bina becomes Landsman’s commanding officer, and Chabon combines their careful dance around the facts of their disintegrated marriage with Landsman’s attempts to get Bina, as his boss, to sign on to his seemingly dead-end investigation. In their back-and-forth Chabon manages to make their smoldering feelings for one another project into their workplace battles, and vice versa, until it’s all one big movie. To this, Chabon seamlessly weds the larger conspiracy, as in this scene, where Bina and Landsman are discussing the recently deceased Mendel Shpilman:
“I guess the idea is that the Tzaddik Ha-Dor could be anyone,” [says Landsman.]
“He is despised and rejected of men,” Bina says, or rather, recites. “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” says Landsman. “Anyone. A bum. A scholar. A junkie. Even a shames.”
“I guess it could be,” Bina says. She works it out in her mind, the road from wonder-working prodigy of the Verbovers to murdered junkie in a flophouse on Max Nordau Street. The story adds up in a way that appears to sadden her. “Anyway, I’m glad it isn’t me.”
“You don’t want to redeem the world anymore?”
“Did I used to want to redeem the world?”
“I think that you did, yes.”
She considers it, rubbing the side of her nose with a finger, trying to remember. “I guess I got over it,” she says, but Landsman doesn’t buy that. Bina never stopped wanting to redeem the world. She just let the world she was trying to redeem get smaller and smaller until, at one point, it could be bounded in the hat of a hopeless policeman.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a fine piece of detective fiction, but it has aspirations toward loftier goals, and it is here that I think Chabon comes up short. The book takes place in an alternate universe in which Jews immigrating to America are forced into the city of Sitka, Alaska. In Landsman’s world Sitka is a metropolis of 3.2 million Jews, but soon this will all come undone: Sitka is scheduled to revert back to America at the end of the year, and most of the city’s Jews will have to scramble for a greencard or a new country. They better not try Israel, though—in Chabon’s universe the Arabs expelled the Zionists in 1948.
However, the Verbovers, Chabon’s criminally organized Jews, have a plan. In order to avoid spoiling the plot for anyone who wants to read this book, I’ll only say that the conspiracy Landsman uncovers in pursuit of Shpilman’s murderer coincides with the Verbover scheme for a Jewish nation, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how this plan in Chabon’s alternate universe relates to recent—failed—plans concocted by certain politicians in ours.
Fiction unpacking America’s recent, disastrous foreign policy and how it relates to the enduring questions of America’s identity, the Jewish people, and the Jews’ historic search for a state are, of course, welcome. But in this instance the unpacking is poorly done: in painting the villains Chabon is too reductionist. He certainly scores some broadsides against the Bush administration, but they come off as cheap shots too easily landed. Malign as these people are, they’re not as simple as Chabon makes them out to be, and fiction seeking to address them should explore them in all their complexity, whether through more thorough characterization or a more creative plot. It’s disappointing that all the twists and turns that Chabon puts Landsman through reach such an uninteresting apex.
Admittedly, the book’s commentary on present politics forms only a part of this novel, but in other sections Chabon also fails to transcend the conventions of detective fiction. Interesting questions are poised—How American are American Jews? Has the State of Israel been a net positive or negative? What happens when Jewish ideology forgets the religion that birthed it?—but these questions get lost as the plot follows its iron dictates.
One might wonder, for instance, how the Verbovers sleep at night, how they can reconcile their dreams of Jewish statehood with the murder of a possible Messiah and the forgetting of their religion. Isn’t their sense of identity a little conflicted? The most insight we get into this, however, are some comments about the Messiah being great in theory but a letdown in practice and references to a “never again” ethic. Rather than probing these matters, the plot gallops on, explaining the Verbovers through simple hypocrisy.
Even Landsman, whose adventures are nothing if not entertaining and who remains a lovable, enjoyable character throughout, nevertheless doesn’t ever become much more than a sad-sack. We’re kept at a distance from him by the firm, amber-like capsules of sarcasm in which all his descriptions are embalmed. Here, for instance, is Landsman on a lonely night:
Look at Landsman, one shirttail hanging out, snow-dusted porkpie knocked to the left, coat hooked to a thumb over his shoulder. Hanging on to a sky-blue cafeteria ticket as if it’s the strap keeping him on his feet. His cheek needs the razor. His back is killing him. For reasons he doesn’t understand—or maybe for no reason—he hasn’t had a drink of alcohol since nine-thirty in the morning. . . . He can feel the shifting of something dark and irresistible inside him, a hundred tons of black mud on a hillside, gathering its skirts to go sliding.
Amusing definitely, and certainly well-written, but this kind of narration doesn’t make Landsman anything more than Chabon’s lonely detective. As a piece of genre fiction, Landsman’s fine, but as a literary character he feels half-formed, the eternal butt of jokes, running smack into iron poles only to bounce back up and go scurrying off in another direction.
Although the relationship between Landsman and Bina proves that Chabon can create an emotionally potent novel out of flat characters, he does not demonstrate a similar ability to investigate identity with them. Landsman never offers us much insight into the mind of an ambivalent Jew who’s about to have his home pulled out from under him. Similarly, his partner Shemets, although full of potential as a half-Jew, half-Indian with an inferiority complex, never becomes more than an enjoyable caricature.
In the end, what we’re left with is a great set-up—an alternate universe with just enough resemblance to ours to be interesting, a plot that necessarily dips into a number of worthwhile questions, and storytelling strong enough to make us want to read all the way through—but a book that fails to make good on this promise.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a book split between two audiences. As another reviewer noted, it “will find such a large and enthusiastic reading public that—let’s be honest—a review is almost beside the point.” This is true—many will enjoy The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as a well-crafted piece of detective fiction that tells an engaging story. But others will find that despite its large ambitions and the great expanses of Alaska it takes place in, the book feels strangely small. In the final tally, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union makes a great read, but not a great book.
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