Finally getting around to this, i’ve been meaning to read it since ??? and I’ve tried several times. The book takes some work because it’s not only an alternative history of Jews in Sitka (with a lot of verifiable history thrown in) and there’s a lot of Yiddish in it.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
by MIchael Chabon
2007 / 412 pages
(both read and listened)
read by ______
Emanuel Laskar is dead, found in his flop-house room at the hotel Zamenhof by his landlord, Tenenboym who promptly calls Meyer Landsman in room 505. Landsman is a top notch police investigator who on his off hours is a drunk and a dreamer, mulling over the history of the Jews in this un-promised land of Sitka, Alaska. It’s an imagined world based on a real possibility which was never realized (thank goodness) and being played out in the contemporary world as though a big chunk of the past were different. – For the purposes of the book, Sitka and a lot of that part of Alaska was settled by Jewish immigrants from Europe in the years after 1938 and the area hasn’t been incorporated into the US even in the present day (2011?) “Reversion” and the take-over of the US Marshall is coming in a matter of weeks.
Aside from the detective business of the murdered man and the history of these Jews in Sitka, Landsman, a contender for loneliest man in Sitka, divorced from the woman he loves but still works with, and deals mainly with avid chess players, the cumbersome bureaucracies in time of transition and the local Orthodox mafia. His partner Berko turns out to be Native Tinglit with extensive family ties on both Jewish and Native sides.
The real crux of the book is a standard detective novel in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler. It opens with the murder of Landsman’s rooming house neighbor just as his department in the police department is closing out old cases by “effective resolution.” But Landsman won’t let this case be closed – he knows the people involved. Oh – and did I mention this is a very dark time in Sitka – it’s December.
Turns out the tension of upcoming Reversion has triggered a lot of gangland activity from the production and sale of green cards to a bit more drugs. Laskar was a drug addict as well as highly connected by family.
The deceased is Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a man with the potential to be the messiah because messiahs are born into every generation just in case the time is right. But the time is not right. And Landsman has to figure it out as the connections go from Laskar and his chess games and needles up and up the ladder.
Chabon writes beautifully but there are places where it’s a bit over-written, the metaphors and slang just a tad over the top, but for the most part it’s perfect. It gets complex with quite a lot of unique characters with Jewish names using Yiddish colloquialisms and more.
Lots of great reviews out there – some academic studies also (not listed):