Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union required careful reading, but it was worth it.

Chabon's story is set in the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska. The District is a fundamentalist Jewish enclave created after the collapse of the state of Israel in 1948.

Sitka homicide detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a drug-addicted genius, a brilliant chess player. Someone shot the man in the back of the head as he lay in a drugged stupor. The murder happened in the flophouse where the alcoholic Landsman lives.

The story takes place in an unusual situation. After 60 years, the U.S. government is about to dissolve the Sitka District sending its residents back into the diaspora.

Authorities send Landsman's ex-wife to command the shutdown of the police establishment in Sitka.

Landsman ends up dealing with a rabbi-led fundamentalist Jewish sect that is organized like a crime syndicate.  

Landsman's stubborn pursuit of a case his wife wants him to drop causes him to lose his badge. To establish his authority, he goes around showing people his membership card in the Yiddish Policemen's Union. (This detail hints at the humor in the book.)

Chabon's story is much more complicated than I make it seem. For one thing, I had to keep looking up the unfamiliar words. It took almost half the book for me to figure out the setting. But all of that was worth it. 

The Yiddish Policeman's Union reminded me of a much more interesting DaVinci Code with a Jewish bent.

For me, the book had a satisfying ending.

In some ways, this book defies description, but when it comes time for me to compile my favorites list for 2013, The Yiddish Policeman's Union will be on it. 


Men tend to cry, in Landsman's experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss.
 To Landsman, heaven is kitsch, God is a word, and the soul, at most, the charge in your battery.
Every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve.
". . .I know enough about Landsman here—fuck, I know enough about homicide detectives period—to know. . .this is not about finding out the truth. It's not about getting the story right. Because you and I, we know, gentlemen, that the story is whatever we decide it is, and however nice and neat we make it, in the end the story is never going to make a damn bit of difference to the dead.”

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