Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

This is the third Michael Chabon book I've read. I absolutely adored The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I found Mysteries of Pittsburgh okay, but not great. However, when I recently punched Jo Walton's Farthing into NoveList, looking for a "read-alike," this is what came up. In general, I haven't been overly impressed with the read-alikes - they tend to get some of the same broad strokes, while generally the books are unuttterably different from the book they're supposed to be like.

It's a fairly strong example of Roger Ebert's axiom that it's not "what it is about, but how it is about it." I always believed that, but these recommendations have been more proof.

However, while I didn't fall in love with the last two read-alikes for books I loved, this time the comparison was not only apt, the book I read as a result was an utter delight. They are similar in that they're both alt-history and deal, in greater or larger part, with Jewishness. (Chabon more, Walton as part of a constellation of issues.)

The Yiddish Policeman's Union adds to the alternate history a hard-boiled noir detective novel. Complete with a detective who just can't let a case go, and a suitably twisty story and resolution. I was a little surprised at how well these two went together, but I was engrossed in the mystery, and the backdrop and larger politics gave it more heft.

The book is set in Alaska, where, after the fall of Israel in 1947, the United States government gave Jewish people a temporary homeland. After sixty years, though, it's about to revert to U.S. control, and the residents are uncertain as to their fate. They're a Jewish people who feel like they might be expelled from somewhere else, yet again. Or at very least, feel unwelcome in the city they built.

The main character is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic and divorced police detective, who is woken up one night at the fleabag hotel at which he lives because there's been a murder in the building. Despite being told to let it go so that everything is neatly wrapped up when it gets handed back to the Americans, he of course, can't, and drags along his partner and cousin, Berko, a half-Native, half-Jewish man who is much more sensible and grounded than Meyer himself.

Berko's father ran intelligence services in Sitka with and without the U.S. government's approval, which led to his eventual release from service. The CIA and other agencies are not uninterested in the fate of Sitka and its inhabitants, and that becomes more and more clear, particularly when it comes to theories about how that might play into Messianic prophecies.

The dead man turns out to have been the estranged son of a prominent rebbe, head of a relatively closed Jewish community that dabbles heavily in organized crime. He was also reputed to have Messiah-like powers.

It's a twisty story, and I don't intend to go into it, but it's thoroughly satisfying, and the ways in which Chabon weaves together genre convention with alternate history and Jewish culture were always delightful. It might be 2008 in the book, but you can see easily Landsman sharing a cigarette with Bogart and shrugging before wandering off for another drink.

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