Sometimes reading throws up odd sychronicities – and my experience of reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (a ‘mainstream’ writer’s take on both sf (alt-history) and the crime thriller in one book) came shortly after I’d finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and No Country for Old Men (a ‘mainstream’ writer’s take on both sf (post-apocalyptic trek) and the crime thriller in two books).
Chabon’s journey through the genres was, by some distance, the more enjoyable experience.

Unlike McCarthy, Chabon has no embarrassment about the tropes of the genre he has taken on. In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy’s detective wanders through a world that has decayed and descended into meaningless violence but the narrative splutters to a halt, McCarthy finding himself unable to bring himself to do anything as passé as provide a satisfying denouement. In The Road, McCarthy’s characters wander through the world that has decayed and descended into meaningless violence… can you see the pattern?… but the narrative splutters to a halt, McCarthy finding himself unable to bring himself to do anything as passé as provide a satisfying denouement.

Chabon is having none of that. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has at its heart a big galumphing narrative. Chabon’s cop (the lippy, hard-bitten, damaged but loveable Meyer Landsman) starts off investigating the apparently common place murder of a junkie in his hotel room and ends up uncovering a conspiracy to put Chinatown or The Big Sleep to shame. There are gangsters, government agents, secret societies, mysterious tunnels, chess, millennial Christians, messianic Jews and more.

Chabon’s has got serious points to make, but above all else The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is fun. The story occasionally wanders towards the deranged (painted cows and four foot sheriffs, for example) but Chabon’s enthusiasm and his fantastic manipulation of language keeps things bouncing along too happily for any moments of over exuberance to become wearisome.

Much of the effort reviewers have put into The Yiddish Policemen’s Union seems to have focused on justifying the author’s decision to set the story in an alternate universe where the second world war played out very differently, Israel never came into being and much of the Jewish Diaspora finds itself huddled against the cold in an Alaskan ghetto that is about to revert back to American control. The Jews are to be scattered again.

Chabon’s basic plot could just as easily have been played out in modern Jerusalem or New York, so the author’s decision to place the story in an alternate world must have some significance. In terms of the mechanics of the story there are a number of good reasons for Chabon’s decision.

First, it allows his Jews to be “innocent”. Without wanting to get drawn into a lengthy debate about the conflict in the Middle East (from which precious few of any background emerge with credit), Chabon’s Jews don’t have to struggle with the moral complexity of being the powerful “occupiers” exercising control over another nation. By removing his Jewish nation from the context of the 21st Century, Chabon is able to simplify the moral landscape of his story, making it a far more comfortable fit with the (mostly) light tone of his story. If the character were a Jewish policeman in modern Tel Aviv, we might find him harder to love.

Second, by inventing this alternate reality, Chabon gets to play fantastic games with language. His characters have the deadpan delivery of hardest of the hardboiled in a Chandler or Hammett novel and the patter of the great black & white Warner Bros movies of the 1930s. But Chabon gets to lay over the top of that a rich extra layer of yiddishisms that makes his character’s words sparkle. Had he tried to do this in the “real” world, it might have sounded ridiculously anachronistic and simply shifting the whole story into the past would risk having the novel dismissed as pastiche.

Finally, the wonderful weirdness of the transportation of the Jewish nation to the icy wastes of Sitka, Alaska lets Chabon have a little fun with our preconceptions of what Jewish people are like. “The frozen chosen” as Chabon characterises his icebound nation eat kosher reindeer and swap the New York bookishness of Woody Allen (or Chabon’s own Kavalier and Clay) for hunting gear as they trek through frozen wastes in search of prey.

These are strange times to be a jew, everyone in the book keeps telling us. But, of course Chabon knows that it is almost always a strange time to be a jew and wherever history has driven his people’s many tribes, they adapt and survive.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is fantastically written and cleverly plotted novel, I enjoyed it from the opening paragraph to the final page. It made me laugh out loud on crowded trains and that, my friends, is a very good thing.

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