Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union promises a gripping mystery, shrouded by an eye-opening alternative history, in which Jews have been forced into desolate parts of Alaska after the Holocaust. Unfortunately, in many respects, the book is not a game changer. It tells the tale of Detective Landsman and his partner Berko, who go off-the-books to investigate the murder of a quirky chess enthusiast and drug addict, Mendel Shpilman. Needless to say, they get more than they bargained for. Bina, Landman’s ex-wife, returns to the district as his boss. If that’s not enough, the mysterious, upcoming “Reversion,” later revealed to be when the Jewish state is returned to Alaska, contributes to an even crazier backdrop for what starts out as a homicide investigation.
The book has the most to offer in terms of its plot. The way the plot is so whimsically weaved through various trials, tribulations, subplots, and conspiracies keeps you glued to the pages. The conspiracy theories, both the correct and incorrect ones, as proposed by the characters, are one of the highlights of the plot. They keep you guessing and put you right alongside Landsman and Berko. You feel like you’re there, trying to wade through the complexities right alongside them. From a beginning in which so many elements are quickly thrown into the mix, it seems like the tension will build to insurmountable heights. The tension certainly builds; however, the resolution does not meet expectations that have been so highly constructed. In his review, Terrence Rafferty tries to spin what I think is a shortcoming as a good thing, by positing, “the book is also about how the grandest fictions raise expectations unreasonably high, paralyze us with anticipation, doom us to the perpetual check of chronic dissatisfaction, unshakable as an Alaska chill.” Personally, I’m very forgiving when it comes to the endings of books because it is nearly impossible for them to live up to expectations. However, I think the ending is where great books can distinguish themselves from very good ones. An ideal plot resolution is one that does not rely excessively on outside influences thrown in at the last minute to finish the story, but is also not so obvious that it is easily predicted. A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind as a story with an exemplary ending, one in which all the pieces were in place long ago. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see how the events would unfold and make the novel an excellent second read. Unfortunately, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union does not meet this standard. Chabon continually adds information that becomes critical to plot, in a sort of deus ex machina fashion, almost to the very end, such that the resolution is more akin to the conclusion of Harry Potter than Dickens’ masterful converging of coincidences.
The alternative history is a bit of a letdown. This book is not a good choice for fans of that genre. The circumstances in Chabon’s parallel history are, at best, a mystery to the reader. Aside from a few casual references to Israel’s fall, the American president, and the occasional explanations of locales, the world is mostly unexplained. Much of the value of an alternative history is in its ability to acutely call attention to facts about our own world, facts that may have been overlooked. However, an underdeveloped alternate history cannot carry much of a message.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union had potential to be a book that gets added to the canon of literature. I think the Tale of Two Cities comparison is apt—both books are plot-oriented and historically-minded. However, Chabon’s plot formulation, although skillful in its own way, is not quite as masterful as Dickens’, which will ultimately be the reason why The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will be barred from the very select group of books that are read long after their time.
However, in spite of all its minor flaws, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is certainly a book that I would recommend in a heartbeat. Although the drunk, underachieving, and uncannily perceptive detective archetype is a little cliché, and Landsman and Bina’s reunion may be a bit predictable, the novel still is worthwhile, as long as you aren’t expecting the next great masterpiece. If you take it for what it is, an above average mystery, then you can have loads of fun with it. Chabon’s artful use of imagery, figurative speech, and language to paint scenes and characters with precision means that there is never a dull moment.
Rafferty, Terrence. “Cops and Rabbis.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 May 2007. Web. 10 June 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/books/review/Rafferty-t.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0>.