Michael Chabon,
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
(HarperCollins, 2007)

Set in a fictional, present-day universe where Jewish refugees resettled in the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska, following the shocking 1948 collapse of the state of Israel, Michael Chabon's sixth novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, finds its Jewish population in a bit of a quandary when the District is set to revert to Alaskan control. On top of that is the murder of a man in the very apartment that down-and-out homicide detective Meyer Landsman, a Jew, of the District Police calls home. On top of that, Meyer's new boss at the station is none other than his ex-wife, Bina, a woman Meyer of course would rather not see at this moment, nor the next.

Oh, and that murdered man in Meyer's apartment was supposedly the next Messiah, at least according to claims made to him during his initial investigation.

Though seemingly bizarre and ridiculously wild, Chabon's plot at the start is both entertaining and believable, perhaps saved by the author's polished prose and phenomenal use of the metaphor. He is arguably a genius at putting words together, carrying the tiniest details to the forefront because of his simple desire to effectively bring them there.

Take this: "Bina opens her mouth, then closes it. Not astonished so much as engaged, sinking her terrier teeth into the information, gnawing on the bloody joint of it." Or this: "At the sight of (the pile of pale blue file folders), Landman's heart sinks, just as it does when by ill chance he happens to meet his own regard in a mirror." And this: (Upon Berko's inspection of a cow by running his hand across its body -- don't ask), "he holds up his right hand as if in solemn parody of the salute of a cigar-store Indian."

Chabon's novel had the makings of a great, fictional small-town murder case, reminiscent of films by the Coen brothers, most notably 1996's Fargo and last year's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, which earned the boys a slew of Oscars at the most recent ceremony. The Coen brothers, in fact, recently announced they next want to adapt this very novel as their next film project.

But comparisons end there between both the Coen brothers' brilliancy and Chabon's ability to write a great small-town murder novel. About three-quarters of the way through, Chabon's simple, highly detailed plot balloons into a conspiracy with global implications, a disastrous change in story flow that quite frankly I tried my best to buy, but couldn't. I no longer paced myself to pick up on the author's masterful detail, but instead read rather frantically to just finish the thing.

Chabon's ability as a writer shows through in his writing, but the novel's final payoff is a bit off the mark. I suggest beginning with Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, which earned the author the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001, before moving on to a later work like The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

review by
Eric Hughes

21 June 2008

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