Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Yiddish Policeman's Union

92. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I've wanted to read this book for years, ever since hearing an NPR interview with the author. When I finally sat down to read it, I wasn't disappointed, although I'm not even sure how to begin summarizing the book.

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionMeyer Landsmen is a Jewish policeman who's considerably down on his luck: he's divorced, living in a dump, self-medicating with alcohol, and the entire government system he works for may no longer exist in two months. See, Landsmen lives in Sitka, Alaska, home to a couple million Jews who were relocated there after the Jewish settlement in Israel failed in the late 1940s.

Then Landsmen gets called in to investigate a homicide in his building--and is almost as quickly called off the case. But Landsmen is drawn by something--perversity? a sense of kinship because the deceased was in the midst of a chess game when he died? It's hard to tell. In any case, Landsmen risks his life, his livelihood, and everything he has (not that it's all that much) to try and crack the case. And the more he unravels, the more unlikely the case begins to seem.

But it wasn't so much the mystery that pulled me through the novel, it was Chabon's prose, his gift for describing characters and scenes in a way that made this improbably Jewish colony in Alaska seem real. Even if, by the end, the descriptive detail began to feel overwhelming, I still found myself admiring its artistry.

This is not a novel for everyone. It's quirky, frequently vulgar, with a sometimes bewilderingly vast cast of characters. But it is also fascinating, funny, and a very empathetic look at some very screwed up people.

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