Summer Reading: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

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In which recovering V-Show writer Rob Trump reflects on Michael Chabon’s latest effort.

sdfIn 2002, Michael Chabon lashed out against the modern short story, claiming that publications like The New Yorker are filled with nothing but the “quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.”  He did this in a McSweeney’s compendium, no less, giving the hipster literati two things to think about: 1) What the hell does “quotidian” mean? and 2) Whatever it is, it sounds pretty bad, so what should be done?  The answers to these, via the internet and Chabon, respectively, are “everyday or commonplace,” and “learn something from genre fiction.”  Genre fiction, if you can’t guess, is fiction that conforms to an established genre—science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, etc.  To paraphrase: your Tuesdays with Morrie would be a lot more interesting if the old fart’s death turned him into a flesh-eating zombie, and you and a double-barreled shotgun were the only things between his bloodlust and your family.  Put this way, I think we can all agree.

Chabon’s first foray into genre fiction, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is also his first book since 2001’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, so expectations are high. And some aspects of Yiddish really deliver, starting with its premise: Yiddish is a hardboiled crime murder mystery set in Sitka, Alaska, taking place in the present day but in an alternate history timeline where Sitka became a refuge for Jews during World War II.

On May 21st, Chabon said in a public interview I attended in St. Paul that he based the Alaska concept on a real bit of legislation that, having been proposed by then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, was immediately shot down.  So Chabon, in the creation of a fantastic setting, changed the minds of Congress and prevented the Holocaust.  Contrasting that with Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America, in which the election of Charles Lindbergh nearly causes a second Holocaust here, might teach you something about the outlook of each writer.  It’s Holocaust count: for real life, 1; for Roth, 1.5; for Chabon, 0.  In discussing the similarities between the books (“I had thought I would have a corner on the Jewish alternative history fiction market!”), Chabon made this clear, saying he was less angry, with less of an “axe to grind,” and that he does not possess the “gripes of Roth.” (If you liked that, more unrelated Chabon wisdom: “I turned 21 on stage ‘singing,’ in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Electric Banana.” Yeah, those were air quotes.)

Chabon’s hero, on the other hand, has quite a few axes to grind.  Meyer Landsman is a police detective who provokes strangers, breaks laws to solve cases, and frequently drinks to excess and thinks about killing himself.  One of the book’s most direct infusions of genre fiction—he is the stock crime novel protagonist—Landsman would seem to run the risk of being uninteresting, but he’s not.  Chabon throws great secondary characters at him: his half-Indian, half-Jew partner with a family to consider; his ex-wife and new boss in the police department.  In fact, all the interactions between the central characters are great.  But this isn’t Fitzgerald: characters aren’t plot. The murder mystery is the plot.  And that’s where the book gets problematic.

A great mystery has tons of details that unfold early and present apparent contradictions.  Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles: there can’t possibly be an actual demonic dog, right?  It’s that confusion that keeps a reader in the mystery.  Chabon’s plot never narrows to create contradictions, nor do his plot twists either create confusion or alleviate it.  They just take the plot in a new, unexpected direction that makes the previous direction meaningless.  At any given point in the novel, I feel like I could have named twenty people who might have killed the victim in twenty different ways.  From there, I don’t need another few hundred pages for closure. I just need the willingness to admit that I own a couple d20s.

Chabon’s writing, however, saves him even when he doesn’t want it to.  He is more concise, descriptive, and poignant here even than he was in Kavalier and Clay.  Familial relations “revert to the state of nature, like a party marooned by a shipwreck”; a voice sounds “like an onion rolling in a bucket.”  In response to the St. Paul interviewer, Chabon said that such similes are the easiest part of writing for him, and it shows.  They never interrupt his flow, only augment it.  In addition to this descriptive writing, a recurring chess motif provides some of the most powerful moments in the book.

It’s ultimately a bit disappointing that, for all of Chabon’s genre fiction love, the crime genre itself—excepting a fantastic ten-page action sequence—ends up hindering the novel.  Not only does it dull the central plot, it also occasionally produces terrible one-liners, e.g.: “Just fighting crime.  Same as last time you blew through here.”  And I say all this with a genuine love for genre fiction.  I count Dune as one of my favorite novels and cheered along with others when Chabon name-checked it.

Despite its shortcomings, for great prose and character interactions, Yiddish is worth a late spot on your summer reading list, assuming you’ve already read and liked Kavalier and Clay.  If you haven’t read K&C, come on Ivy kid, you’re supposed to know all books that have won the Pulitzer since you learned to read.  And this one, unlike The Hours, will give you obscure knowledge about the golden age of comic books.  Cool kids like that stuff, you square.

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  1. Anna

    Great review RJT. I own a couple of d20s too (and I know how to use em)!

  2. Jewish fiction

    Discussion Questions for da Club

    Why does all contemporary fiction seem to be written by Jews?

    Was the holocaust really the most important event in American history?

    Kavalier & Clay was dull, I thought. I can't imagine this will be much better.


  3. shira  

    good to know.
    oh yeah, and i totally hated the hours. perhaps i'll give this one a go, though.

  4. great review, but...  

    i think it's kind of important to check the facts before saying something. yiddish policeman's union isn't chabon's 1st foray into genre fiction. 2005's 'final solution' is, which was a weak re-formulation of sherlock holmes detective stories. which also means yiddish policeman's union isn't his first book since kav & clay

    • rjt

      Yes, this is true. At some point in time I reworded something and made it incorrect. I was not counting "The Final Solution" because it was a novella, not a full-length novel. He also wrote a children's story in between Kavalier and this.

  5. Not bad, but

    it really pales in comparison to Kavalier & Clay. Poor guy. He could write for another fifty years and I doubt I'll like anything as much as that one.

  6. M.M.

    Next thing you're gonna tell me it's his first book since Kavalier & CAT.


  7. hmmm

    Why is the sidebar still in the way of everything?

  8. Mr. Moo

    Rob Trump and I are building a house for the 20th millenium. We're going to put a tax on every garage and two cars in every oven. A vote for us is a vote for politics.

    #10, get back in the kitchen.

  9. trk

    Rob Trump, your words are dripping with honey. Really intelligent and delicious honey.

    To weigh in on the d20 issue, I don't own any NOW, and that's all I'm gonna say on the subject.

    In conclusion, vote Moo/Trump in 19004.

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