I’m now quite happy that of the two Michael Chabon books I own, I chose to read Telegraph Avenue before embarking upon a read of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I will repeat, once again, that Telegraph Avenue was not a bad book, but it most certainly was a book that just wasn’t as good as it’s own writing. It just didn’t work with itself. If you care to know what I thought about it, being that it was my first experience with Michael Chabon’s writing, you can read my full review and thoughts here. Compared with Telegraph Avenue, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is in every facet a better book. It so outdoes Telegraph Avenue as a novel that I am amazed that they were written by the same person. That’s all I will say as far as comparing the two, simply because I don’t want this review (which, spoliers: is going to praise the hell of tYPU) to seem like it is praising a great book simply because it is so much better than another book; which is unfair to both books.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an alternate-history-detective-religious novel. It takes place in Sitka, Alaska, on a timeline in which post-WWII, Israel was not created. Rather, a Jewish state was set up in Alaska, where Jews and Tlingit clash in bloody riots and battles over territory. Its protagonist is Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective at Sitka PD who is, as they say, down on his luck.
It’s difficult to say anything about this novel without revealing major spoilers. The detective aspect of the story is not necessarily what drives the book, but nonetheless, anything revealed about the plot would be a spoiler in every sense of the word. It is steeped in Judaism and Jewish Mysticism and both those are entwined deeply within the plot. This is perhaps what most appealed to me about the novel: namely Chabon’s use of what seems like almost practical Jewish Mysticism. The plot is one of the most fascinating storylines that I’ve ever encountered in any medium, let alone literature. There is nothing that is out of place, no matter how obscure or random-like. Meyer Landsman is not a character that I would ever describe as brilliant, and ninety percent of the book takes place through the narration of what he is seeing and thinking, yet no insight ever feels too deep, or intelligent for him. This can also be said for all of Chabon’s other characters.
Concerning the characters that surround Landsman, none of them are throw-away or poorly created. The depth of characters in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is of the same level as Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Even if a character is evil, you still want to know more about them and you, the reader, are never tired of being with them. If you, my dear reader, have read East of Eden, it is easy to recall being upset upon a chapter ending, knowing that it meant that Steinbeck would be leaving that character behind for a chapter or two before he would return to that particular character’s part in the story. A similar feeling occurs in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but in a different way. You rarely (I believe twice) leave Landsman’s perspective, but when he recollects a previously introduced character, or has a great conversation with another character that then ends, you find yourself, concerning the former, with an increased heartrate due to some form of excitement, whether it be happiness, terror, or pure shock. When the latter happens, you are sad to have the conversation end. There are definite moments in which the conversation could last one hundreds pages and that would be okay.
Part of this phenomenon is due to the nature of the novel. As a detective story it is built to succeed in character development. One does not have to read even a sentence to know that Landsman is going to be asking questions about what has already happened to each character because he is a detective. Yet Chabon is to be commended for his character creation, as each one has a backstory to tell Landsman that is surprisingly unique considering that the story takes place in a world of the same (meaning that the story takes place in a place where the people live lives that revolve totally around Judaism). Each person is connected by this one religion, yet their stories and views are vastly different. At times the Jewishness of each character is simultaneously both irrelevant and the most important detail about him or her.
As I had suspected, I am learning it to be true as I write that the most interesting part of this novel is the one thing I cannot explain. You must take my word that Chabon’s incorporation of mysticism into the “everyday practicality” feeling that this novel has contained within it’s story is absolutely breathtaking. It flows so naturally. The supernatural mingle with the natural as if it were an everyday occurrence that no one in his or her right mind would question. What keeps the pages turning and drives the novel is not the detective arc. It is not the drive for knowledge that pushes you to read the book, it is instead the revelation of what you don’t know and can’t know.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is masterful in every way. Chabon is on fire the entire novel, to the point I have trouble imagining how so many people think The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is better. Truly, I am curious of just how good that book is.
Recommended to: Those who are interested in religious mysticism, those who are interested in Judaism, and those who are looking for an extremely well-done alternate history story.
Avoid as if you are Jewish and to read this book is to carry something on the Sabbath: Those who do not enjoy books that invoke a sense of spirituality, and those who avoid books that are dense with foul language (Going to go out on a limb here and say you should just avoid Chabon altogether.)