Every once and a while you read a book that you don’t quite realize is awesome until you get to the very end of it, when everything falls into place. That’s the experience I had with Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), a much-lauded alternate history potboiler about a down on his luck cop investigating a murder. The setting is Sitka, Alaska — which, in this timeline, has been established as a temporary haven for Jewish refugees, in the wake of World War II and the destruction of Israel in the late 1940s. Detective Meyer Landsman, ambling through his final days on the police force while awaiting Sitka’s “Reversion” to US possession, undertakes to solve the case. His odd journey sends him careening from one misadventure to another as he stumbles across evidence of a possible Messiah — and into a vast, ugly political conspiracy.
So how could I miss, while I was reading it, that this is a great book? To be honest, I think I may have been reacting to the cover copy. I was so propagandized by the overkill of blurbs and superlatives, I felt like I was reading the most overrated book of all time. At times the pacing feels slower than a Scandinavian art film, particularly in the early pages, and the novel has a distinctly gray and melancholy atmosphere — punctuated by amusing quirkiness, granted. It feels a little like that weird Coen Brothers movie* you’re not sure you liked or not, equal parts funny and horrifying. Or perhaps a Philip K. Dick novel, written with uncharacteristically polished sentence-level craft. The writing is consistently witty and evocative, brilliant in places, but it’s a slow burn, and it takes a while to take shape.
Later on, though, the book morphs from a smooth-strolling, beautifully written but rather drawn-out mood piece, to a rather astonishing structural achievement, its patiently deployed plot components clicking into place to reveal profound commentary, dark and surprising. The widespread praise clicked once I realized that, when it comes to style, I wasn’t quite the target audience for this one. I think I tend to lean toward more transparent, propulsive prose that carries me through a story. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is more luxuriously written, reveling in its language — its amusing turns of phrase and vivid descriptions and inventive wordplay. For me that felt like a pacing problem, but for others the sentence-by-sentence journey will surely hold more detail-level pleasures. Either way, it’s a pretty remarkable book, and one I’m glad I read, entertaining, intelligent, and wholly unique.
* I swear, I wrote this before finding online that the Coen Brothers have an adaptation in pre-production. Nice call, me!