Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

I love alternate history and what ifs. I do get a bit annoyed how so many alt history novels involve Nazis, but in the authors' defense, the Nazis are a truly odd regime with a lot of paperwork, audio and video left behind. Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" is set in an alternate America, Alaska to be exact, in our contemporary era but with some twists. The basic premise is that the Jews found refuge in Alaska in 1940, saving millions of lives in Europe, but after the Jewish state was stillborn in the Middle East in 1948, more Jews relocated to Alaska. The province is facing 'reversion' back to US control, and the Jews face another Diaspora. In the middle of all of this, a detective who is at the bottom of society's totem pole won't give up on a fishy murder of some heroin junkie in his flea bag hotel.

This is a fun book that is a wonderful homage to old detective noir tales and immigrant Yiddish culture. Sometimes it is tongue in cheek like a cop named Spade or kind of lame like the need for the detective to have a drinking problem that he can fix by the end of the book (whoa, he didn't need Intervention?). I enjoyed a lot of the Jewish-Yiddish stuff as it took me back to college at Cornell, candles lit in December and Matza during Passover. My Jewish friends seemed a bit exotic at the time, and when thrown together were like force multipliers. This book is like that, and delves into those niches of casual Jews, orthodox, and then the super-strict. The small references to their odd alternate world, as well as the definite post-9/11 influence, make this topical and interesting, but the characters hold the book together. Detective Landsman, Berko, and the random Jews of Sitka are fun characters. I liked the buddy cop interplay, the constant chess references, and the family ties.

This book is being turned into a movie by the Coen Brothers. Of course. There are enough quirky characters in this book to meet their needs. I'd love them to turn this into a 3 part miniseries for HBO to really flesh it out, but I'll settle for a Coen classic. I can just see Buscemi, Turturro and of course Goodman (as the Verbover rebbe Shpilman) in this. This is a fun read, and you can find it cheap on's marketplace. Check out used book stores as well. It's a breeze to read and would make a great summertime beach book.

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