Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in the handy go-buy-stuff sidebar to your left that I was reading through Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and since a couple of people asked what I thought of it, I figured this would be as good a place as any to respond.


So here’s the short version: It’s good.

Really good, in fact, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given that Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which in my opinion nobody with even a passing interest in comics–or just really good novels, what with that whole Pulitzer thing–should be without. But then, given that it’s the story of characters inspired by Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jim Steranko, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster set against the rise of the Golden Age and World War II, anyone who’s interested in my opinion of Chabon’s work has probably already read it.

So back to Yiddish Policemen’s Union: According to an interview he gave with NPR, Chabon was partially inspired by, of all things, Marvel’s What If?, but instead of that book’s shaky, half-baked premises that fail to deliver–and I’m looking at you here, “What If the Hulk Became a Barbarian?”–Chabon sets his story in a world where the State of Israel was overrun in 1948, and Jews searching for a homeland after the Holocaust were sent instead to Sitka, a Federal District created by the US Government in sunny Alaska. And when the novel begins, it’s November of 2007, two months before their sixty-year lease is up and the land reverts back to US control, sending the Jews of Sitka wandering once again.

Outside of that major premise, there are a few other references to the alternate history of the book, including a mention of Marilyn Monroe as Kennedy’s First Lady and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Berlin, but they’re brief, and generally without consequence other than to remind the reader that things are different in Chabon’s Sitka. What does matter, though, is the sense of incredible uncertainty that the setting lends to the novel: The characters might not all be living on borrowed time, but they’re literally living on borrowed land, and as the mystery at the center of the story deepens, there’s nothing certain for them to hold onto.

And that’s the world that plays host to the main character, Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective who’s about as far down on his luck as he can be. Even among a whole city of people about to be homeless, Landsman’s problems are pretty intense. In the grand tradition of the hard-boiled detective–a stereotype that Chabon seems to have a great time playing with in the way that he casts Landsman as a jaded, self-destructive hardass with a secret fear of the dark and the fact that we don’t even learn his first name until like fifty pages into the novel–his marriage has collapsed, he’s living on his own in a fleabag, and he wakes up to find an impossible case that’s just fallen into his lap.

It’s the classic private-eye setup that gives us a classic private-eye opening line that I’m just in love with:


Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.


It’s a fantastic opening line, full of a bitterness that’s sharper than Spillaine and meaner than Chandler, and it just gets better from there. It probably goes without saying at this point that Chabon’s use of language is just incredible, shifting between complex religious imagery to the staccato one-liners of the hard-boiled detective almost effortlessly. It’s the latter that sticks with me, since that’s a genre I hold pretty dear to my heart, and there’s one line that just absolutely floored me.

It happens when Landsman goes to see his ex-wife–who is also his superior officer–after they’ve both been interrogated by FBI after Landsman’s off-the-books murder investigation leads him to be chased naked through the snow. They’d both been locked up for over a day getting the third degree from Government agents, and when he finally sees her again, it’s when he barges in twenty minutes late for his own suspension hearing:


Bina looked like hell, only hotter.


It’s a simple line, but man, it’s a great one.

Anyway, as you might expect from the above description of the events leading up to it, the plot is, to say the least, far-reaching. What starts as the murder of a junkie in a flophouse leads up through the ranks of organized crime, chess tournaments, national cover-ups, and all the way to the Messiah, with a brief stop at the impending Apocalypse for good measure. But as you read it, you realize that all that stuff’s just going on in the background: It’s not about that any more than it’s about what would happen if Jews were relocated to Alaska instead of Israel. It’s a story about Landsman and his unstoppable, unquenchable need to know, and the lengths that he’ll go to find things out.

And like I said: It’s really good.

23 thoughts on “Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

  1. Great review of what sounds like an interesting book, Chris. Are you a fan of alternate-history novels as a rule, or just the odd one by favoured authors? Me, I love it with a passion. Harry Turtledove goes without saying, but George Martins Wild Cards books probably top my personal list – superhero culture overlaid on our own slightly skewed history is just perfection, for my dollar.

    Chabon sounds like a good read; chalk up another successful recommendation, mate.


  2. Im going to buy this based strictly on your recommendation. I read Kavalier & Clay and LOVED it, but in the intervening years kind of forgot Mr. Chabon. thanks for reminding me he exists!

  3. Have you reached “Soon I Will Be Invincible” yet?

    Because if not, you need to move it to the top of the pile right now. Really.

    Doug M.

  4. I thought it was a fantastic book. Of course, I’m a huge Chabon fan so maybe that colors it a bit but I’ve been waiting to read this one ever since it was announced a few years back and he completely delivers.

    And you should listen to Doug M. about Soon I Will Be Invincible.

  5. You might also be interested in Chabon’s Summerland, Chris. On the other hand, you might not.

    Some of the elements (“slightly” parallel worlds) are like Yiddish Policeman; others are fairly different (theme is baseball and childhood, and it’s listed as “children’s literature”, though the book’s about 300-something pages and reads (so far)).

    I’m about 50 pages into it at the moment, and it hasn’t grabbed me yet. However, a friend who liked Chabon’s other books likes Summerland the best.

  6. Whoops! Sorry for for the abrupt truncation above:

    …and reads like his other books (so far)).

  7. I loved Cavalier & Clay, and Summerland. Yiddish Policeman started off great, and I felt like this book was bound to become one of my favorites.

    Then, towards the end, there’s one chapter that completely ditches Landsman and his personal narrative for a ELSEWHERE tangent that goes off into Tom Clancy-land. Completely jarred me out of the story.

    Still a great read tho.

  8. Ever since reading Kavalier & Clay a couple of years ago, I’ve picked up pretty much every Chabon book available, and used to visit his website all the time before he pulled it off the web (boo!). That boy can write! I didn’t think The Yiddish Policemen was his best work, but it’s still an amazingly solid read. It’s amazing, when you consider his oeuvre, what a versatile writer he is.

  9. Kind of went overboard on “amazing” in those last two sentences. Michael Chabon I’m not.

  10. And in addition to his writing, Chabon also delivers one of my favorite Simpsons lines of all time:

    “You fight like Anne Rice!”

  11. Decker, do you mean the chapter that gives the exposition for the voiceless guy’s part in the story? I kind of liked that Chabon chose to present that as a separate third person narrative instead of awkwardly having to pay lip service to the idea that this was the story Landsman was being told. Those expository chapters in mystery novels are a difficult thing to handle without getting bogged down in the literal mechanics of whom is addressing who. It was a jarring shift of narrative focus, but it worked alright for my money. I can understand how it would have rubbed some the wrong way.

    Chris- No mention of Berko Shemets? The hammer-wielding giant half-Indian Jew who kicks the most ass of any Chabon character? He had the most compelling arc of the book, to me. Great review, I just finished this book last week and I couldn’t agree more. I have been a fan of Chabon since the Baxter Building and a thinly veiled Fantastic Four showed up on one of the first few pages of Wonder Boys.

  12. Chabon books always take me a few tries to get into. Kavalier and Clay took me two times (though the second time I couldn’t put it down. I was working with 3- and 4-year-olds at the time, and I declared nap time every 10 minutes), and I’m on my third try with Yiddish Policeman, but now that I understand it’s solidly “What-If” (I know…how could I have not picked that up?) I think it’s going to be the charm.

  13. chris, would you be willing to stake a claim about which is better? time is short, and both seem like something i’d love to check out.

  14. Chris- No mention of Berko Shemets? The hammer-wielding giant half-Indian Jew who kicks the most ass of any Chabon character?

    Well I wanted to leave something for people to find out about themselves. And you’re right: Berko’s fantastic, and the arc of the character–and his periodic freaking out over the course of the novel–were definitely one of my favorite parts.

    chris, would you be willing to stake a claim about which is better?

    …Which what?

  15. It isn’t a surprise that people who like comics also like good books.

    I liked K & C a lot, though I had to admit some of the characters seemed to me to be ciphers put into the book more to say “yes, and the hero is one of THESE, and this villian one of THOSE, and this other character one of THEM”. like he had to make sure he covered a certain number of bases. i.e. preaching.

    tiny niggle, in a book which really jumped hard on the “Amazing” button, I guess.

  16. I was actually surprised that I didn’t like the book as much as I thought I would. I found it more depressing than engrossing and the ending didn’t work for me. That being said, it was still a damn sight better than most of what’s out there.

    That being said, Gentlemen of the Road knocked my socks off. (As did, of course, Kavellier and Clay.)

  17. thanks for the review. I love this booka and this author but its cool to hear another persons take on it. i guess i shouldn’t be surprised that someone who likes the same comics as me will like the same books.

  18. winterteeth Says:

    Decker, do you mean the chapter that gives the exposition for the voiceless guy’s part in the story?

    Yeah, I think it was the Litvak chapter that drove things off the rails for me. I guess I liked the dirty, personal tale of Landsmans’ life – setting that against a hard-boiled mystery was cool. Setting that story against a back-drop of world-wide conspiracies was too big a jump for me. I felt like it spun out of Chabon’s control towards the end.

    And Berko was too fucking cool.

  19. I loved it, but something odd soured the reading experience for me a bit.
    Halfway through, I started visualizing Landsman as Inspector Zenigata from the Lupin III series.
    That cast everything in a completely different light.

  20. I bought this when it came out,now I have to read it. I wonder if Meyer Landsman is a tribute to Meyer Meyer from the EdMcBain 87th Precinct series and Jay Landsman from Homicide (the book and The Wire)? I will believe it is because that is the kind of Chabon Easter Egg that I love.