Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"He now looked not simply like the ruins of his youth, but like the ruins of those ruins..."

The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007) by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union tells the story of Meyer Landsman, a once-promising detective who is, at the moment, drowning in a sea of his own raging alcoholism. With the help of his more attentive partner (his half-cousin Berko), Landsman investigates the mysterious death of a former chess prodigy/messiah figure/current heroin addict. He is also dealing with the return of his estranged wife, Bina, who is now heading up the Homicide Division and serving as Landsman's de facto boss.

But this is only part of the tale. The other lead character is, interestingly, the setting, which looms over and colors everything in the book. In Chabon’s alternative universe, the year is still 2007, but the world is very different. The bulk of the action takes place in Sitka, Alaska, the adopted Jewish homeland that emerges in the wake of the alluded-to-but-never-explicitly-discussed collapse of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948. Sitka, a thriving metropolis of some three million people, is, much to everyone’s consternation, about to revert to U.S. rule, leaving the vast majority of American Jews in a state of limbo.

Chabon, who many (myself included!) fell in love with after the incomparable The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (the Seth Cohen quote—mainly, he and Ryan can't be friends if Ryan doesn't like K and C—still applies) is such a brilliantly evocative writer that trying to review his work is slightly embarrassing, to the point where it’s pretty much impossible to avoid quoting him at length. As such…

On Landsman’s childhood hatred of chess and his complicated relationship with his father: But in the service of his own small misery, Landsman could be stubborn, too. Satisfied, burning with shame, he would watch unfold the grim destiny that he had been unable to foresee. And Landsman’s father would demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face (p. 33).

On friendship: “You bet. Mazel tov, Berko.”
Landsman’s congratulations are so ironic that they are heartfelt, and they are so heartfelt that they can only come off as insincere, and he and his partner sit there for a while, not going anywhere, listening to them congeal
(p. 49).

On longing: She reaches into the breast pocket of her suit jacket and takes out a pair of half-glasses that Landsman has never seen before. She is getting old, and he is getting old, right on schedule, and yet as time ruins them they are not, strangely enough, married to each other (p. 59).

And again: Landsman watches her walk across the dining area to the doors of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria. He bets himself a dollar that she won’t look back at him before she puts up her hood and steps out in the snow. But he’s a charitable man, and it was a sucker bet, so he never bothers collect (p. 160).

Now, Kavalier and Clay this ain’t (although given how good K and C is—and, Shuk, I refuse to argue about this, so let’s just move on—this isn’t saying a whole lot), but his eye for detail and his ability to take the mundane and turn it on its head remains uncanny.

The book is also laugh out loud funny in places, but, on account of my less than thorough note-taking this time around, you're just going to have to take my word for it, dammit.

If forced (you are forcing me, right??), I could probably be just a little bit critical. The plot, especially near the end, is faintly ridiculous (and that's being generous). Additionally, the details on WW2 in the Chabonverse are considerably sketchier than I'd prefer. For instance, the Wikipedia page on the book is much more illuminating than the book itself on this front, to the point where I'm fairly certain the contributors are reading in stuff that wasn't actually present in the text. Landsman's alcoholism, which sounds as if it's crippling at the start of the book, becomes little more than an affectation at the end. Oh, sure, there's an awkward scene early on where he opts for a beer for breakfast, but, for the most part, he keeps his problem in check--like, there isn't even a whiff of danger on this front beyond page 150--which comes off as Chabon playing it safe. Now, this is Chabon's choice to make (the characters, after all, are his) and maybe he simply wasn't interested in pursuing that angle any more than he did, but then why introduce it in the first place? I'm not sure. Finally, there's a third act revelation about his sister which should really shock and anger Landsman, yet he completely brushes it off like it's no big deal. Truth be told, I didn't even pick up on this until my dad mentioned it to me (he ripped through it in four days after I finished it), but he's completely right: it is a tad askew. It's almost as if Chabon didn't want to have deal with the poignancy of the moment, set it aside, and never got back to it.

When isn’t falling all over itself being wildly arrogant and, in the process, sending me racing to the dictionary in an effort to decipher its latest review, it has rare moments of clarity, even beauty. One such moment occurs near the end of their review of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker (astoundingly, this review is no longer available on their site), when the reviewer persuasively argues that the album is “the soundtrack for the last fifteen minutes of every relationship ever.” (I know people have heard me use this line before, but, dammit, it's great, so I'm sticking with it.) Well…if Heartbreaker were a book, it would be The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (and the disc should be the required accompaniment for all TYPU readers.)

Though, unsurprisingly, Landsman and Bina eventually reconcile—as they were inexorably bound to when the book began—The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is very much rooted in this Adamsesque milieu of love and loss (of a wife, of an unborn child, of boundless optimism, of talent, of a homeland that they barely had a chance to miss, and of another homeland that was really never theirs to begin with). And, as far as I’m concerned, no happy ending can ruin this.


FJ.MJ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
RT Murphy said...

What the crap is the deal with your link to tinyurl? It says the Wiki page doesn't exist.

At any rate, good review, made me want to pick the book up... but since my reading list is literally dozens of feet long at this point it might be a while.

Kyle Wasko said...

Fixed. [shakes fist at tinyurl].