Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oy, this book is good

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

When did Michael Chabon become one of our finest living writers? I've been reading his novels for about two decades now, loving each successive work more. Suddenly I realize that he is one of those rare writers where you go out and buy the book full price on the day it's released. He's that good. And The Yiddish Policeman's Union lived up in all ways to my high expectations.

The novel grabbed me right from the opening pages. We meet Meyer Landsman, a somewhat down on his luck homicide detective. We meet the victim, a John Doe in the cheap hotel Landsman calls home. We meet Meyer's cousin/partner, his ex-wife/boss, and many, many other supporting characters, each more richly-drawn than the last.

I must confess summarizing plots is not my strong suit. However, unlike many "literary" novels--and it is as literary as they come--this is most definitely a plot-driven novel. It's a who-done-it, and perhaps more importantly it's a why-done-it. Because as Meyer and Berko investigate the execution-style murder of this young addict, the world they live in is revealed to us. And it's possible that this alternate universe is the most interesting thing about the novel. It's a world where the European Jews fled from Hitler to Alaska--a premise based on a historic trivia fact. They've populated Sitka and made it their own for the past 60 years, and in just a few weeks they need to get out. Alaska is "reverting" back to the Americans in much the way that Hong Kong recently reverted to the Chinese. The oft-repeated refrain of these characters is "Strange times to be a Jew." True enough.

And if nothing else, this sure is one Jewish murder mystery. It's chock full of Yiddish, a joy for me, but surely not for a majority of the novel's readers. A lot you can pick up in context, but Chabon's not going out of his way to help readers there. You'll learn about boundary mavens and Jewish prophesy. It's all very exotic, but so richly and realistically portrayed. Chabon brings this world that never was to life, and it's fascinating. And while the mystery surely kept me turning pages late into the night, it was my pleasure in the characters and the setting and the world created that made me truly, truly love this novel. Reading simply doesn't get any better than this.

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