The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

Okay, you’ve heard me say it before, so you can all say it with me now, “Michael Chabon is America’s greatest contemporary author.”

You should have that memorized pretty soon.

Funny story I have to share with you before I write this review.  I found out that Chabon was visiting my neck of the woods in Chicago soon after this book was released.  Well, there was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass me by.  I made sure to get up there to see him after some finagling. 

Because of this, I very much wanted to have the book done before I met him, just in case he wanted to invite my wife and me to coffee afterwards and discuss the merits of his work.  That being said, I madly rushed to get through The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  In fact, I read the last third of the book so quickly that I don’t think I processed it very well.

So when I felt a bit disappointed by it, I knew it was probably my own fault for not giving it the time it deserved.  More on that in a moment.

What?  You wanted a review?  Just humor me.

Chabon appeared at the Harold Washington in Chicago, and he could NOT have been a more down-to-earth, warm, funny, genuinely nice guy.  So many times, people of Chabon’s stature can get a bit … haughty.  Not him, though.  In fact, once he gave his talk and started signing books, I surprisingly got as nervous as a dog in a hotdog factory.  I had my favorite book of all time, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, ready for him to sign, and my wife had my copy of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at the helm.  I even went so far as to have a copy of my own book ready to hand to him for his entertainment.  Unfortunately, once I stood before him I turned into a complete idiot, introducing my wife twice and praising him with the vocabulary of a two-year-old.  He could not have been more polite, however, extending his hand without prompting and smiling the entire time.  When I walked away, I lamented my unstable nerves to my wife and realized I forgot to give him a copy of Souls Triumphant, but we both agreed that this man deserved all the praise I’d given him to anyone who would listen.  I feel very good about supporting both the man and his work.

But, because I knew I’d rushed through his book, I decided to do something I rarely do, and that’s immediately reread the novel.   

I’m glad I did.

I have such a better understanding after digesting it slowly and giving it the time it deserved.  Chabon crafted a book rife with characters that leap off the page, and possibly birthed one of my all-time favorite characters with his self-destructive detective, Meyer Landsman.  Once Landsman’s ex-wife and new boss, Bina, enters the action, the book really takes on a life of its own.  The witty, playful, tense, and strained banter between Meyer and Bina is worth the price of the book alone.

But, this book is about far more than the reintroduction of husband and wife.  This book also imagines an alternative world where the Jews were allowed to move to Alaska, filling a land they call the Federal District of Sitka, shortly after 1948.  However, their time is coming to an end as the land is about to revert back to the US and they are going to go … well, wherever they can find a spot.  No one is outside of the district is real concerned about helping them out.  This impending fact, coupled with the death of a man who is much more important than anyone in the police department initially thought, lays the groundwork of a story that is both fascinating and provoking.

I’m typically not one for a “mystery” story, and I’m not sure if this exactly qualifies as such, though I keep hearing people, including Chabon, refer to it as a “genre” piece.  However, let me tell you that I enjoyed this book so much better after the second read once I knew the ending and what to look for throughout.  There is a lot going on, and it is very much so deeply ingrained in the Jewish culture, so I was unknowingly lost the first time around.  After a second read it all made so much more sense!

Chabon is an expert at bringing dynamic characters to life, and while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union requires close attention, it certainly keeps up Chabon’s excellent status quo.

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