- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION

By Michael Chabon

HarperCollins, $26.95, 411 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

In 1988, 25-year-old Michael Chabon burst onto the literary landscape with a magnificent romp of a novel called “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and ever since he’s been bursting and rebursting like one of those multi-stage Fourth of July rockets. In 1995 it was “Wonder Boys,” five years later the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” and then two more novels, “Summerland” in 2000 and “The Final Solution” in 2004, not to mention several short story collections, essays and a comic book novel.

Now comes “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” a book as funny and as deeply satisfying as “Kavalier and Clay,” but with a very different story and an equally appealing set of heroes. Given the subject matter, it is fair to say that if a book could be Jewish, this one would be a mensch.

Before describing the characters, it’s important — no, essential — to describe the setting, which happens to be at least half the plot. It’s the Yiddish-speaking area of Sitka, Alaska, where, Mr. Chabon tells us, the nascent nation of Israel has been given a new homeland, but with the proviso that it reverts to U.S. control and ownership in 60 years. As the book opens, the Reversion is upon us.

Meyer Landsman (think a younger Oscar Madison with a badge) is a good detective and a first-class mess. He’d married a woman named Bina, but the abortion of their child 11 years in also killed their marriage three years later. Then his beloved younger sister, a bush pilot, crashed into a mountainside and died. All this tsouris all but sank Landsman.

When we meet him, he’s 44 and looks older. He smokes too much, drinks way too much and is about to lose his job, which in a way doesn’t matter because Reversion is but months away and the United States will replace the Sitka police with its own (non-Jewish) force. The fleabag hotel where Meyer lives is an apt symbol for his life, which is also run down to the point of near uselessness.

Then a fellow resident of the hovel, a known junkie who hustled chess games for drug money, is murdered, and Landsman, who views this as akin to professional insult, perks up. When he’s told this case isn’t worth pursuing because the victim was a nobody, Meyer balks. First of all, the person telling him to forget it is his ex-wife; Bina, who is also a detective, has been made head of the force for the few months it has left. Secondly, he learns the nobody was actually a somebody.

Enlisting the help of Berko (“Bear”) Shemets, his young cousin, a half-Jewish, half-Tlingit Indian monster of a man, Landsman begins to work the case.

When he learns that the dead man, who used the name of the German world chess champion Emanuel Lasker, dead since 1911, is actually the son of the ultra-Orthodox Bobover Rebbe, a gangster, Meyer is really hooked. But that’s hardly all. In his youth, the boy was thought to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a saintly person with miraculous powers who comes along but once in a generation. Apparently that burden, as well as having a major crook for a father and being a world-class chess prodigy, was too great a load to carry, hence the addiction.

That’s all the set-up Mr. Chabon needs. He lets Meyer Landsman take it from there, and what follows is something like The Marx Brothers Play Policeman in Alaska. With a tip of the fedora to the noir detective fiction of the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, the story careens off into one adventure after another, and, as with any work of fiction by Mr. Chabon, there’s humanity and humor in about equal doses.

For my money, Mr. Chabon is the funniest writer in America. Whether it was description — his similes and metaphors are outstanding — or narration or just simple asides, I found myself laughing out loud every few pages. Just a few examples:

A letter is impossible to understand because “It’s all written in lawyer;” Meyer’s father didn’t just beat him at chess, he would “demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face;” a place is “as empty as an off-duty downtown bus and smells twice as bad;” a young man “was not a handsome kid. He had a perpetual flush, close-set eyes, a second and hints of a third chin without clear benefit of a first.”

And one longer example: “A ganef wind has blown down from the mainland to plunder the Sitka treasury of fog and rain, leaving behind only one bright penny in a vault of polished blue. At 12:03, the sun has already punched its ticket. Sinking, it stains the cobbles and stucco of the platz in a violin-colored throb of light that you would have to be a stone not to find poignant. Landsman, a curse on his head, may be a shammes, but he is no stone.”

Speaking of vaults, this novel is a treasure house of the near-sacred and the downright profane, but it also moves right along, featuring nonstop action in addition to the figurative language pleasures addressed above. This is hardly a conventional novel, but then Mr. Chabon — who is on record as not wanting to be locked into any genre — never writes conventional novels.

If the term “yid” bothers you, be forewarned, because it’s everywhere. To the author’s credit, for all the slapstickian goings-on, the book never becomes farce. Mr. Chabon pays just enough attention to both plot and crime novel convention to keep the reader interested in the who part of whodunit.

There are many layers of interest here beyond the language and the story, such as the relationship between fathers and sons (Mr. Chabon, who was born in Washington and raised up the pike in Columbia, apparently did not exactly luck out in that department), the war between the sexes, the world of chess and, especially, what Leo Rosten called “the joys of Yiddish.” As with all the really good books, there’s something of value on every page. That’s what I meant when I said this book is a mensch.

John Greenya is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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