Summary and book reviews of The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

A Novel

By Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
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  • Hardcover: May 2007,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2008,
    464 pages.

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Book Summary

For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.

At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.

Chapter One

Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.

"He didn't answer the phone, he wouldn't open his door," says Tenenboym the night manager when he comes to roust Landsman. Landsman lives in 505, with a view of the neon sign on the hotel across Max Nordau Street. That one is called the Blackpool, a word that figures in Landsman's nightmares. "I had to let myself into his room."

The night manager is a former U.S. Marine who kicked a heroin habit of his own back in the sixties, after coming home from the shambles of the Cuban war. He takes a motherly interest in the user population of the Zamenhof. He extends credit to them and sees that they are left alone when that is what they need.

"Did you touch anything in the room?" Landsman says.

Tenenboym says, "Only the cash ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

For 60 years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the 1948 collapse of the state of Israel. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an untimely end.

Homicide detective Meyer Landsman has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. He and his partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life, who just happens to be his ex-wife. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose.

...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Chabon effortlessly leaps themes and genres in a tightly written novel in which gangsters, extremists and conspiracies jostle for space. The Yiddish Policemen's Union can be read as a well written noir-thriller, or as a powerful piece of political writing with themes and world events mirroring those of our own timeline, or both!   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Boston Globe - Gail Caldwell

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is fueled with [energy similar to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay] but it's a strange, passionate misfire -- obsessively constructed, meticulously researched, Byzantine in its plot line, but a thing of wonder only to itself. It's half-brilliant but half-boring, maybe because Chabon has so fallen under the sway of his creation that he lost control of its tenets.

USA Today - Deirdre Donahue

Some readers will adore this book and admire its undeniable originality, rich language and audacity. Others will hate it and find it bleak, overwrought and bewildering. But it will provoke strong reactions.

Washington Post - Elizabeth McCracken

In this strange and breathtaking novel, the wise, unhappy man settles for closer comforts. As Landsman says, toward the end of the book, "My homeland is in my hat."

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

While Mr. Chabon makes the ultimate answer to [the murder-mystery] too far-fetched to be plausible, his account of Landsman’s detective work remains suspenseful and artfully done. More important, Mr. Chabon has so thoroughly conjured the fictional world of Sitka — its history, culture, geography, its incestuous and byzantine political and sectarian divisions — that the reader comes to take its existence for granted. By the end of the book, we feel we know this chilly piece of northern real estate, where Yiddish is the language of choice, the same way we feel we have come to know Meyer Landsman — this “secular policeman” who has learned to sail “double-hulled against tragedy,” ever wary of “the hairline fissures, the little freaks of torque” that can topple a boat in the shallows.

The Seattle Times - Michael Upchurch

Chabon's wiseguy-noir alternahistory is a marvelous creation. Its characters are full of gothic or sardonic vigor, and its island landscape is lovingly rendered. Its Yiddish-flecked prose has an Annie Proulx-like density of regional vocabulary (except in this case the region doesn't exactly exist). The plotting is tight and the book is shapelier than Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Publisher's Weekly

Signature Reviewed by Jess Walter. It's a solid performance that would have been even better with a little more Yiddish and a little less police.

Booklist - Bill Ott

Starred Review. Even without grasping all the Yiddish wordplay that seasons the delectable prose, readers will fall headlong into the alternate universe of Chabon's Sitka, where black humor is a kind of antifreeze necessary to support life.

Kirkus Reviews

A page-turning noir, with a twist of Yiddish, that satisfies on many levels.

Library Journal

Raucous, acidulous, decidedly impolite, yet stylistically arresting, this book is bloody brilliant and if it's way over the top, that's what makes Chabon such a great writer. Highly recommended

The Sydney Morning Herald - Malcolm Knox

[N]o novelist as gifted and ambitious as Chabon wants his book to be read simply as a clue-puzzle ..... Chabon's questions are deeply political and this novel, written in the present tense, is as immediate to today's Middle East as the other September 11-inflected novels around .... Is the novel successful? Resoundingly, yes - although tethering his interests to the propulsion of a detective story limits Chabon's freedom. It's as if he's put a jet engine on a paddle steamer: it moves the thing forward but it may not be the best way to absorb the scenery.

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Jewish Homelands

Over the years a number of different plans for a Jewish homeland have been proposed. A 1903 British proposal offered 5,000 square miles of the Mau Plateau (in what is now Kenya) to the Jewish people as a homeland. This offer, presented at the sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, was in response to pogroms against the Jews in Russia. The proposal resulted in fierce debate - the Russians stormed out in opposition and some groups felt it would make it more difficult to establish a ...

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