Book Review: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Last week I finished reading a novel by Michael Chabon called The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I’d never read anything by him before, but I remember my old roommate Neal recommending his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay when I lived in Hungary. I first was drawn to this book last year when I saw its brightly colored jacket and read about its intriguing premise in an airport bookstore. Since the author was recommended by a friend with good taste, and it is set in southeast Alaska, where I have spent some time, I decided to give it a try.

The southeast Alaska of this book is nothing like the southeast Alaska I know, however. Chabon’s is a completely fictional world in which the state of Israel never got off the ground in 1948, and Jews were settled in the District of Sitka with a 60-year lease from the United States. The novel is set just a few months before Reversion, when the lease will be up and the Jews of Sitka will be wanderers once more. It is also a detective novel strongly influenced by noir – an appropriate choice since it is so dark during the Alaskan winter. This book is Raymond Chandler meets Chaim Potok meets James Michener’s Alaska. Some of the best books I have read mash up aspects of the world in creative and unexpected ways, and so I was looking forward to this one.

What I liked about the book is that Chabon certainly does have a way with words, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily scream, “I’m a literary novelist!” It’s a tough thing to write creative prose and not call attention to the fact that you are writing creative prose. Chabon showed more restraint than many other writers of so-called literary fiction I have read, and I appreciated that. I also appreciated that the book had more of a plot than much literary fiction, which often seems to coast along for pages on turns of phrase alone. Chabon was not above writing a detective novel with an interesting plot. And while the plot was not as fast-paced as your typical popular paperback mystery, it was much better written, which ought to count for something.

In the end, though, the plot was where I found fault with the novel (and if you’re planning on reading it, don’t read any further, because I’m going to disclose some things). It starts out with a body found in a hotel, with detective Meyer Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, trying to find out whodunit against the wishes of their superiors. The story leads into the depths of Hasidic organized crime, and the identity of the corpse is revealed as a chess-playing, heroin-addicted man who was once hailed as a potential Messiah, but who faded into the shadows because he couldn’t handle the pressure. He was later found by a group who wanted to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and who needed him to lead them. This group was in cahoots with the U.S. government, which is run by Christian dispensational premillennialists who think it is necessary for the Temple to be rebuilt so Jesus will return.

I won’t get into how the man died, because that is less important to me than who the “bad guys” are revealed to be. First, I found this coalition of Orthodox Jews and Left Behind -reading Christians a little too far-fetched to be true. It’s not that there aren’t such Christians out there; there are lots of Christians, particularly in North America, who have that kind of eschatology. You could even say (and you would probably be right) that dispensationalists have had an influence on U.S. foreign policy. However, those who would seriously espouse violence to bring about a supposed Second Coming have never been more than a lunatic fringe. The idea that, even in an alternative universe, they would control the government and destroy the Dome of the Rock lacks plausibility. It also comes across to me as a thinly veiled satirical snipe at said Christians.

But more than that, this plot twist reveals that we Christians in the United States have a PR problem. If we are known more for theories about the End Times than for, say, love for one another, then it seems we’re not getting the right message across. Michael Chabon may be just one person, but he had to get his ideas from somewhere, and he certainly has a lot of influence through his books. I’m not mad that he turns wacky Christians into a contrived plot device; I’m just sad that enough Christians have that wacky theology to give Chabon a target. I would recommend this book for its fine writing and better-than-average plot. However, even in a richly textured and plausible alternative world, the deus ex machina of Christians who run the government and use explosives to hasten Jesus’ return was a little too unbelievable.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

  1. mac August 15, 2008 / 8:09 pm

    Fret not! Did not the Jews and Romans have the wrong idea about Jesus and his ministry? I think the lampooning of Christianity goes with the territory. At least it’s not the paranoia of the Romans a la Nero!

  2. elliot August 15, 2008 / 11:19 pm

    You’re right, mac; knowledge of history should keep me from being surprised at such things. Even if Christians did get the message right all the time, this would still happen. Even though I’m not surprised, I can’t help but be a little disappointed.

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