Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

A blackly humorous Arctic fatalism hangs over Michael Chabon's latest masterwork, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. When disappointment dogs the Jews who've built an unlikely homeland in Sitka, Alaska—even the polar bears and walruses they expected don't pan out—it isn't just a temporary setback, but a 3,000-year-long crucifixion. Everyone has stopped hoping, it seems, especially Meyer Landsman, the divorced alcoholic detective who catches one last mess of a case before the 60-year experiment of the Federal District of Sitka ends and the land reverts back to the Alaska Territory, stranding the Jews yet again. But although this isn't a story of magic and young men's dreams like The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, its pages contain a perverse, stubborn glimmer of grace, an irrational hope that can't be crushed by the evidence of history or the plans of evil men.


Landsman's last hopeless case unfolds like Yiddish pulp fiction, via a junkie chess player in a fleabag hotel who turns out to be an ultra-orthodox heir apparent, maybe even a Messiah in waiting. All the pieces that will fall into place in the last chapter are present in the first: a gun, a plastic chess set, "Warsaw tunnels" under the Sitka streets, and the phylactery that the dead man used to tie off his needle-ridden veins. In between, Landsman confronts one by one the lights that have gone out of his life. His sister Naomi, a bush pilot who flew her plane into a mountain, might have a chance for justice. His ex-wife, haunted by the ghost of their baby Django, is placed in charge of cleaning up the caseload in preparation for the latest exodus. The chess that was his father's religion, and the religion itself that never took root in Landsman, hold the key to the case that the detective refuses to abandon.

Chabon creates a rich alternate history that turns like a slowly closing door, with everyone either yanking their fingers away from the hinges or wedging a black boot in the jamb. His gift for deadpan dialogue and ironic juxtaposition has never been better employed than in this permafrost noir. All the gentiles ever gave these Jews were emergency visas to enter their Alaskan concentration camp, "printed on special flimsy paper with special smeary ink." But God's promises and myths and happily-ever-afters are always with them, albeit honored only in the breach.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter