Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon
Harper Collins
There’s a certain moment in some books, a moment when you’re reading along, perfectly content with the story, interested in what happens next, enjoying the language, and then … something happens. A moment, a scene that lets you know that you’re not reading the book you thought you were reading, there is more going on here, not just in the plot, but in the atmosphere, there are metaphysical gears clicking into place around the space the reader occupies in the story and you know the author is definitely up to something.

And it’s glorious.

In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that moment comes in chapter 14, about 120 pages in. Up until this point the book is totally fine, brilliant in places, beautiful in the rest, but in chapter fourteen as an elderly Yiddish boundary maven narrates the story of his child chess prodigy and the way he helped a certain woman in his life, the author brings in such larger things that you definitely know Michael Chabon is up to something. And the book transcends.

It’s not like there’s not already a lot going on. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is, on the surface, a murder mystery set in an alternate history venue. Branching off from history during the middle of World War 2, a certain congressman is run over by a car and killed. This congressman is notable in our history for being the primary legislator responsible for killing a bill that would have allowed Jewish settlers fleeing the holocaust to settle in the panhandle region around the city of Sitka, Alaska. In our world, of course, this did not happen. But in this one, it did, and a great many things have changed.

Chabon is not, however, out to give us a review of the intervening sixty years of History. This story is set in the modern day, a day in which the Jewish region is set to revert back to Alaskan hands. There is notstate of Israel, and the Jewish people are once again about to be set free into the world, with no place to go, and not many prospects. A lucky few will be allowed to remain, but for our main characters, their fate is far from certain.

And in this world a man is murdered. The simplest of tragedies weighed against the rest. But like all meaningful things in life, it is connected to the others in ways no one can imagine. Because living in his building is a certain detective, a broken man, weary from the many mistakes he’s made in his life, the people he’s pushed away, the lost loves and lost chances, and this case may – just may -- be his last shot at redemption.

I will say no more about the plot because the reader should have their own chapter fourteen moment, as I did. Let’s just say Chabon, already a Pulitzer prize winner (and one of my favorite novelists of all time) for his 2001 book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, is up to something. He’s using the tropes of the 40’s detective novels to do it. The language is more spare than his earlier works, written is present tense, the sentences clipped and sometimes terse, but buried within them are metaphor and wonder and the choppier rhythm begins to mimic the waves outside Sitka, the waves the lost jews will soon have to ride in order to find new lives.

I will give one warning. This is a murder mystery and in the end we know the truth about that crime. But the ending may not provide the proper sense of closure some readers may demand. Most of the key issued are resolved, but for many of the characters we have come to love, things have not been tied up with a bright, shiny bow. The future remains an open, uncertain thing, even if some have learned how they might begin to get through whatever is coming next.

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