You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel

Jews, chess, Alaska, homicide detectives, criminals, boundary mavens, messiahs, Yiddish, Eskimos, rabbis, ex-wives, sons, fathers, cousins. That is the synopsis of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel. The story takes place in an Alaska where the Jews have been relocated to a settlement in Sitka, an island. They have formed a Yiddish Alaskan culture, but it is all going to go away with Reversion, when the United States takes the territory back and relocates the Jews again.

Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective who discovers a dead body and a chess game in a room at the hotel he lives in. Landsman is stymied when his new supervisor, ex-wife Bina Gelbfish, flags the investigation as closed. He decides to do some investigation on his own, despite having only nine weeks before the Sitka police department is disbanded as part of Reversion, when the Americans take over.

Landsman and his partner and cousin Berko Shemets discover that the body was that of Mendel Shpilman, the son of a local Verbover rabbi, Heskel Shpilman, who acts suspiciously on hearing the news. Landsman and Shemets do some more investigation before Landsman is shot as part of another case. When he recovers, he is suspended for harassing Rabbi Shpilman. So he goes north, finds out a link to Mendel Shpilman and his own sister Naomi, who died in a plane crash a year earlier. Landsman ends up at a rehab facility on native lands, run by Jews. He runs into Rabbi Shpilman's attorney and nearly gets killed before he is rescued by the local sheriff, an old friend.

Landsman and Bina reopen the investigation and eventually discover a radical Jewish group that plans on taking action in Palestine to bring about the end times. The story circles around, pulling in chess players, the local boundary maven, American agents, and Berko's father.

I found the story hard to get into at first, but it soon paid off and became very interesting. I think some of the difficulty was listening to the difficult names and the narration, which was really excellent when I got used to it. The story is a variation of a detective story, and Landsman is a typical detective. He has a troubled home life and not that many friends. He is good at what he does, but that doesn't really matter since his job will soon be disappearing. He dislikes having an unsolved mystery in his own hotel.

The theme of the messiah who can heal everyone but himself entwines with the story of Landsman who solves everyone's problems but his own. There is also the parallel stories of the Jews and the natives, who both vie for power and control over land that they eventually lose to the Americans. And there are many interesting characters, not the least of which is the dead Mendel, who we learn about through all the people he has touched. There's also the boundary maven, who keeps maps of strings set up so that Jews can use a loophole and get around Sabbath rules. Berko is half Jew and half Eskimo, and has deal with a father he despises. In fact, the whole city seems to have a personality that Chabon brings out. The dialog is snappy and incisive, alternately funny or pathetic. Part detective story, part personal redemption, part commentary on Jewish Messianic thought, it all comes together as a great piece of literature, a solid A.


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