three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
Awards: 
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
2008

A-The Yiddish Policemen’s Union"It’s a strange time to be a Jew," opine characters in this alternate-history-and-noir detective novel. Jewish refugees of World War II have lived peacefully in their homeland—the Federal District of Sitka in Alaska—for 60 years, ever since they lost Israel in 1948. Yet a "reversion" of Sitka back to Alaska will soon occur, and millions of Jews will once again be homeless. Two months before the reversion, worn, hard-drinking detective Meyer Landsman starts to investigate the murder of a junkie chess prodigy. Aided by Berko Shemets, his half-Tlingit partner, and confused by Bina, his boss (and ex-wife), Landsman must expose the dark Orthodox underworld and a religious-political scheme before Sitka reverts back to Alaska—and his own tortured history consumes him.
HarperCollins. 414 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0007149824

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Chabon is after a quintessentially American synthesis, in which immigrant heritage blends with mass culture fascinations like science fiction and noir. … For him, the novel’s genre tropes—the alternate history, the murder mystery—are less narrative devices than expressions of his desire to mix fact and fantasy, literature and popular entertainment, until we don’t quite know where we stand anymore." David L. Ulin

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Yiddish Policemen’s Union builds upon the achievement of Kavalier & Clay, creating a completely fictional world that is as persuasively detailed as his re-creation of 1940s New York in that earlier book. … Mr. Chabon has so thoroughly conjured the fictional world of Sitka—its history, culture, geography, its incestuous and byzantine political and sectarian divisions—that the reader comes to take its existence for granted." Michiko Kakutani

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Chabon’s dexterity remains impressive; he juggles the Big Ideas with brisk narrative and amusing set pieces without breaking a sweat. … Chabon demonstrates once again with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that he ranks among the most important, and interesting, contemporary American novelists." Erik Spanberg

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The hardboiled language of pulp spills from Chabon’s characters’ mouths, and it’s unclear whether this ripe dialogue winks and nods at the reader or if the author just gets carried away—it’s a thin line between homage and parody. But it’s a small price to pay for this vibrant reimagining of the roman noir." J. David Santen Jr.

Houston Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Let’s just say that if Chabon weren’t Jewish, I could imagine outraged protest upon the publication of this book. In an age when people who consider themselves educated blithely deny the Holocaust, when some groups actually insist the Israelis were the ones who flew those planes into the Twin Towers, do we really need a novel that flaunts every vicious stereotype of the Jewish people?" Lisa Jennifer Selzman

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is fueled with … energy, but it’s a strange, passionate misfire—obsessively constructed, meticulously researched, Byzantine in its plot line, but a thing of wonder only to itself. It’s half-brilliant but half-boring, maybe because Chabon has so fallen under the sway of his creation that he lost control of its tenets." Gail Caldwell

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 0.5 of 5 Stars
"What originally may have started as a good-natured gag—an insider’s gentle elbow-to-the-ribs of Jewish culture a la Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, sustained over 400 pages wherein everyone is referred to as a yid, culminating in the horrifyingly ugly plot to reinstall Jews in the Holy Land by a group that looks suspiciously like Lubavitchers—is in the end cruel and mean-spirited. This is something I never thought I would find in a book by Chabon, who is usually such a warm, tender-hearted author." Kris Collins

Critical Summary

Does The Yiddish Policemen’s Union live up to Michael Chabon’s formidable reputation? There is no consensus: some critics called the novel the spiritual heir to the Pulitzer Prize–winning Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000); others thought it a disappointing aberration. As in Kavalier & Clay, Chabon explores issues of identity, assimilation, and mass culture, but he also pays homage to the noir detective novel—with mixed results. The New York Times called Landsman "one of the most appealing detective heroes to come along since Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe," while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette felt that the work "came nowhere close to making the cut of a Raymond Chandler novel." Critics similarly disagreed about the writing, the convoluted plot, the symbolism of the Jewish-Native American conflict, and the controversial use of Yiddish slurs and caricatures. If not a glowing success, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union nonetheless illustrates the rare talents and creativity of its author.