Friday, January 8, 2016

Best Reads of 2015: Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (a novel)

Before I was done reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and was about a third in, something marvelous happened. Everything came together. The train wreck of a hero, Private Detective Meyer Landsman, started to pull himself off the ropes. Landsman's tragic past and his gloomy, lonely present and the whole tension in the central story, also come together.

Detective Lansdman wades through the fictional Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" Jewish settelement created on the northern panhandle of Alaska in the wake of the Holocaust and the collapse of Israel . He is also wading away from his failed marriage and through abject alcoholism and solitude. The tension underlying the story is that the frontier town of Sitka is about to revet to native ownership. In lovely hardboiled detective style, the reader meets the murder victim and Landsman on the first page. Enter his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, now his boss, and a plethora of colourful characters and suspects among the wide and sprawling populace of Sitka.

There are, of course, a diverse number of different Jewish factions in Sitka. Characters often utter, Yiddish street slang. As well, an abundance of detective story tropes and dialogue segues ensue. The readers receives a rambling, dystopic impression of Sitka as overcrowded and teeming with a complex caste structure.

Here, Chabon demonstrates his brilliance again. There is his usual command of grammar and syntax and muscular, sweeping prose, yet in shorter bursts this time than his other books. During several instances, I wanted to give a big rallying yodel from a rooftop. 

I would love to interview this author about his work sometime. He’s like a Canadian Mordecai Richler, with splaying epic sagas involving colourful Jewish characters, often working-class geniuses with amazing secret projects on the side. Or rich barons of industry with colourful and outlandish pasts. And always, of course, they are fallible, such as Detective Landsman, a failed husband, father and alcoholic.

Does any of this sound like a Richler character from Barney's Version? If I changed some names to say, Duddy Kravitz from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or Barney of Barney’s Version or Solomon Gursky from Solomon Gursky Was Here or the hero from St. Urbain's Horseman, I’d be talking Richler instead of Chabon. The parallels are stunning. Their work is, likewise, outstanding, and not at all the same desp
ite these similarities. 

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