Chances are that, if you are reading this or any other website concerned with popular culture, you have little more than a passing familiarity with ultra-orthodox Judaism. Like most fundamentalist sects, they mostly keep to themselves. They rarely make the news except for when their behaviour becomes excessive somehow – excessively strict, like when some Rebbe or other gets into hot water for forbidding women Jewish and non-Jewish alike to walk across a public sidewalk or tries to ban children from attending school because their mothers drive; or excessively grand, like when two teens getting married drew a crowd of over 25,000 wedding guests. Theirs is an impenetrable world to most of us, full of opaque rituals and seemingly inane rules. Small wonder, then, that they form a minority even in their own community, in Israel. I’ve never been but I suspect they’re about as otherworldly to the average Israeli as they are to me.
It is precisely this concept of orthodoxy as an immovable, impenetrable mass immune to time and earthly laws that Chabon toys with in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The book takes place in an alternative timeline. On the advent of World War II, a great number of Jews were transported to the city of Sitka, Alaska, which is now a metropolis comparable to current-day Tel Aviv; the fledgling state of Israel was destroyed in 1948. At the heart of the story is Meyer Landsman, a police detective straight out of a Hammett or Chandler novel (Chabon doesn’t skirt the comparison here; there’s even a minor character named Spade). Landsman has all the tools of the trade: he’s bright and compassionate, and he suffers from alchoholism and depression. He lives in a run-down hotel where he smokes, drinks, and ponders chess moves and suicide. One night, a man living in the same building is murdered, execution-style. Despite orders to the contrary, Landsman sets off to try and find the killer with help of his best friend and trusting partner, Berko, and his boss slash ex-wife Bina
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is many things all at once, and Chabon is a very skilled narrator. First, there’s the backbone of the story: a noir murder mystery, set against a backdrop of rainy streets, overcrowded concrete buildings, cheap and not-quite-kosher diners, drooping porkpie hats, and neon signs reflected in dirty puddles on the streets. Mysterious chess players congregate in halls with worn, checked linoleum and flickering fluorescent lights. Secondly, there’s Judaism as a theme, from in-name-only Landsman to trying-too-hard Berko to a network of Orthodox (or Black Hat, as Landsman puts it) gangsters who employ a so-called boundary maven to help them circumvent the strict rules of the Sabbath. There’s also the theme of the Jewish diaspora, with the orthodox desperately seeking to reclaim the Holy Land and Sitka as a Jewish refuge coming to an end, its citizens nervously awaiting the inevitable apocalypse of their city, unsure of where they will end up next.
Finally, there’s the alternative timeline itself. It’s an intriguing idea: World War II ended in 1946 when a nuclear bomb was dropped on Berlin, and because of the Alaskan refuge only two instead of six million Jews died; the Germans crushed the Russians in 1942, prematurely ending the USSR; Kennedy never was assassinated and married Marilyn Monroe; there’s an independent state of Manchuria and a Third Russian Republic. The problem is that Chabon only hints at it; we see the world through Landsman’s eyes, and to him this just how the world is and it needs little further explanation (though Chabon makes a narrative exception to explain the idea of the Alaskan refuge and how it came to be). Though it makes sense from a narrative point of view, it also convolutes the novel needlessly.
Chabon is one of those people who vie for the throne of Great American Novelist (though Chabon himself would surely contend that matter, which is – ironically – why it’s true) and with good reason. He sketches worlds and characters the way Rembrandt painted them, with great realism, precision and wit. Landsman may come across initially as a dime a dozen, but he’s immensely likeable, funny and warm and intelligent and impossible not to root for. The villains are described so vividly they seem to almost jump off the page, from the porcine imagery that Chabon applies to the enormously fat Verbover Rebbe, to the sad fate of a would-be Messiah shooting up heroin with a Tefillin for a tourniquet. There’s great humour to be found – Landsman, in his underwear, being chased through the Alaskan jungle by a group of Orthodox Jews in a decked-out SUV – but great sadness as well, an aching longing for a former lover and a lost child. A sense of silent uncertainty hangs over the novel as well as the city in which it takes place, with the characters unsure of their destiny whether or not they actively try to change direction.
My only qualm with this novel is that it seems too convoluted. The half-baked Messanic escapades of the villains, the politics of the Alaskan reclamation and the relationship between the Sitka enclave and the US government are only briefly discussed. Some of the plotlines, like the complicated relationship between Berko and his father, or the murder of Landsman’s sister, feel underdeveloped. The ending feels rushed and predictable, as if Chabon ran out of steam near the end. I know other reviewers have made the same point and felt that, in the greater scheme of things, they were minor quibbles. I’m not sure I agree. To me, the book was like rummaging through an overstuffed second-hand shop: there’s so much there that it’s hard to see through the rubble, which is a shame because the story is more than intriguing. Perhaps my expectations were too high, because I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or perhaps my problem is that I read it in increments of thirty minutes instead of one long sitting (like I did with the other novel) but it left me a little underwhelmed.
At the same time, there is a lot to love here. Chabon’s prose is stunning and the plot, if you can pierce through the sheer volume of loops, dead ends and extraneous frills, is brilliant. By all means, give it a go. It’s a novel meant to be read on a dark and rainy autumn weekend, tucked in bed or a corner of your sofa; not to be pored over and pondered needlessly, but to give yourself into, to plummet into this bizarre commune of Yids trying to carve out their niche in the world in whichever way they can. Let yourself be surrounded by the wonderful and horrible people that populate this world, and then you might find that whatever problems the novel has become irrelevant.