Novel: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

July 29, 2011

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, if punctuated by amusing quirkiness. 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: 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!

  • Erik R July 29, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Chris, have you read Cavalier & Clay yet? Excellent Chabon book. I didn’t like this one nearly as much.

    • Chris East July 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      I haven’t, although it’s been sitting on my to-read shelf for a while making me feel guilty. I will get to it some day, though!

  • Lisa Moore July 31, 2011 at 8:40 am


  • Alan Abrams August 9, 2011 at 3:50 am

    having read a few of Chabon’s novels, and now in the midst of Furst’s Dark Star, I am troubled by the thought that Furst is actually Chabon, writing under a nom de plume. Despite completely different tones, there are remarkable similarities in their writing styles. The setting of moods, the description of scene and inner monologue, the broad and rambling scope, endless stream of characters, and the lists, lists, and lists. And above all, this focus on the Jew as an outsider, as the object of persecution. Oy!

    • Chris East August 9, 2011 at 10:20 am

      I can’t say I see that, although I’m not as familiar with Chabon as with Furst. (I do think Furst gets more focused and concise in his later books; Dark Star and Night Soldiers are both pretty epic!)

  • Alan August 9, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    …nor have I read much of Furst. But I noticed the same evolution with Cahbon; that Kavalier wandered all over the map with characters and plot, and quite a bit of unforgivably sloppy prose. Take my word for it–I read the book aloud to my wife (a passion of ours!)–and after several convoluted passages, we both wondered how such an overwritten piece like that took the Pulitzer. Sheeesh!

    In contrast, Yiddish–despite its satiric and even farcical approach–is tighter writing. When Chabon reaches out from the page to pull your leg or tweak your nose, it is with control and even a measure of precision. Still, if 40 pages were cut, it would be a better piece of literature.

  • Steven Klotz September 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I’m literally reminded of this book weekly, as at some point while I was reading it I googled Eruv, explored a bit and then signed up for alerts from

    I loved the prose and mood at the start of this so much that I almost lost interest when everything started falling in place near the end. About as far opposite of a reaction to yours as possible for 2 people that obviously enjoyed a great book.

    • Chris East September 20, 2011 at 11:44 pm

      I often feel that I’m kind of a “mechanistic” reader (for lack of a better word, off the top of my head): I love watching all the pieces clank and shift and lock together to reveal something I didn’t originally see. I think sometimes that makes me impatient at the sentence-level, which is why I don’t enjoy basking in the individual sentences as much — even when they’re as well written as they are here.

      Obviously, it’s best when the book has both — and this one does!