Michael Chabon’s story of a schmuck of a policeman trying to solve the murder of the latest Messiah is brilliant on any number of levels. First off, the story is set in Sitka, Alaska-where a few million Jews escaped the European Holocaust where about 2 million Jews where killed by the Nazis. Over the years they have come to think of the place as their own, but now, America wants the land back and wants to kick the Jews out.
We are told the details of the past fifty years or so as through the eyes and mouth of Meyer Landsman as he wanders around in a drunken haze from booze with names I am unfamiliar with and smoking brands of cigarettes I have never heard of and referring to them as papyrus.
The details of the alternate universe are wonderful and utterly convincing. So much so that during the first few paragraphs I found myself asking if there had been a settlement of Jews in Alaska that I had never heard about. One of the fun little asides is when a woman is compared to President Kennedy’s wife Marilyn.
I love the language of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union CD: A Novel. The turns of phrase are fun and amazingly visual. Among my favorites was- It sailed through the air like a dime carrying a wish on it’s back into a fountain. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and on top of all the fun of having a new world to understand, there is a good old fashioned murder mystery.
It is not a totally unfamiliar world. There are still familiar brands, just take a back seat to the Jewish brands. There is still greed and crime among the Chosen Frozen. There are the usual odd bits of Jewish business like women wearing wigs so no one but their husband sees their hair and a man called the Map Maven who creates the carefully controlled lines of string and wire that allow a Jew to move about on the Sabbath.
Our hero moves through his small world of Sitka interacting with the Black Hat Ultra Orthodox Jews, the other less serious Jews, and the many immigrants who run the local businesses, such as the man who runs the Donut Shop. Then there is the chess side of the story. Chess plays a small but vital part in the story, from the many odd events that take place at The Einstein Cafe to a chess problem left behind by the murdered Messiah. There is a lot going on, but all fits perfectly together.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was a great book.