Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” reads like Harry Turtledove and Mordecai Richler conspired to remake the movie “Chinatown”. (And maybe they consulted Philip K. Dick along the way, with just a dash – just a dash, mind you - of Clavell’s “Shogun”.)
It’s an alternate universe tale, set in the 21st Century on an Earth where the attempt to establish Israel in the late 1940’s failed. Routed by the Arabs, the Jews fled to North America, where a territory was set aside for them on the Alaskan Panhandle. But there’s a catch, the District of Sitka, as it’s known, is only temporary. As the story opens, the 60 year lease on the land is about to expire and residents face another Diaspora.
It’s also a classic gumshoe tale, the story of Detective Meyer Landsman, crack homicide investigator, trying to solve the murder of a heroin-addicted chess genius who lived just a few floors below him in his seedy hotel. To do so, Landsman has to navigate his way through powerful crime syndicates, religious conspiracies, revolutionary dreams, government intrigue and plain old bureaucracy.
And it’s the story of a man trying to redeem himself. Landsman is a manic-depressive alcoholic who bucks authority and lives in a ratty apartment. He’s mourning a failed marriage and a dead sister and has unresolved issues from his childhood.
There is a pervasive sense of loomings (to borrow from the title of chapter 1 of Melville’s “Moby Dick”) in this book. The mountains, forest and sea hem-in the District on all sides. Time is running out for the District as the settlement expiry draws near and a people are unsure of their fate. Shadowy forces conspire for their own ends. There signs of passage indicating the divine may have been lurking about. Men are haunted by their childhoods. Amidst all this, how is one man supposed to sort out his own shit? Yet he doggedly moves in that direction, towards rebuilding himself. Landsman’s story becomes one of survival, and so, in a way, the story of his people.
“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a methodical book that plays out it its own time, like two old friends facing-off across a chess board.
But while I found the story interesting, it wasn’t compelling. I just couldn’t seem to care much about Landsman. And not because of cultural differences either. It was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe Landsman was too down-and-out to draw me in. Maybe his character was, in many ways, too much of a rehash of Rick Deckard (as much as from Scott’s “Blade Runner” as Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”). Maybe the book itself was a little too clinical. Maybe it’s because gumshoe stories, while I’ll read one or watch a film once in a blue moon, are not my favourite. I dunno. The book just didn’t demand that I come back to it right away after dinner. It was good, but it wasn’t great. It was, to borrow a little Yiddish, “nisht geferlekh”.
Special thanks to my good friend David Berner, author of David Talks/The Berner Monologues, for the Yiddish lesson.