I always feel a little sad upon finishing one of Michael Chabon’s novels. The Berkeley author weaves such wonderfully detailed tapestries of language and imagery that a feeling of loss is inevitable once the Big Finish has come and gone. That same feeling pervades The Yiddish Policemen’s Union from the beginning as the world the characters have inhabited for 60 years is about to be flung on the trash heap of history.
The alternative-history conceit is as follows: after the horror of World War II, and a collapse of the stillborn State of Israel, Jewish refuges were settled in an American Federal District hastily carved out of the Alaskan wilderness—and now the lease is up.
As alcoholic policeman Meyer Landsman begins the search for who may have killed a fellow tenant of his own down-at-the-heels hotel, he heads toward the basement and this throw-away bit of narration: “[Landsman] checks behind the hot-water tanks, lashed to one another with scraps of steel like comrades in a doomed adventure.”
The metaphor could be stretched to represent Landsman himself and his ex-wife/new-supervisor Bina Gelbfish. Gelbfish has been sent to tidy up all the loose ends at Sitka Central and Landman’s investigation is one big throbbing nerve of a loose end.
Drowning in the machinations of the District’s Hasidic mafia and a cold ocean of slivovitz, Landsman is haunted by a complex chess problem left by the dead tenant. Is it a clue? Is it just a reflection of his own hang-up caused by his chess champion father’s disappointment in him and resultant suicide?
Chabon has explored these themes before. He revels in the arcane details of modern Judaica, and I was waiting past the 200-page mark for his patented Big Gay Character to show (he does, although posthumously). As Chabon has repeatedly shown—in his on-going bid to become a one-man Coen Brothers of the literary world, chewing up and spitting out genre after genre—it’s not the materials, plot points, or archetypes you start with, it’s how you play the familiar pieces that wins the game.