Monday, October 20, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon

I wish I could say more about this book, but the truth is, I feel like I read it with only one eye and half of my brain. No fault of the book's, it's just been a long month, fraught with dying cats and sleep-allergic children. So much of my reading time has been done either at midnight in emergency pet clinics, or at the end of a long day that started out exhausted and therefore, I have only the vaguest memory of what I read the night before and it makes it hard to string the story together cohesively in my brain.

The premise, though? Fascinating. A Jewish state formed at the end of WWII in Alaska, of all places, is about to reach the end of it's "lease" so to speak and the Jews who have called Sitka home for decades are about to be, as Jews often are, cast once again to the four corners of the earth, on their own, with not official state.

The main character, Meyer Landsman, is a sad, neurotic shell of a man, grieving the death of his sister, and divorced after a personal tragedy tears he and his wife, Bina Gelbfish, (who ends up being his boss) apart. Along with his partner, Berko, who is half-Jewish, half-native Alaskan Indian, Landsman sets out to solve a murder of a man who seems to have been simply a junkie down on his luck, shot in the head in his hotel room (the same hotel, incidentally, in which Landsman resides).

With all odds against them, including the government for which they work, what Landsman, Berko and Gelbfish discover is that this mere junkie was actually a pivotal part in a plan born out of hope and desperation as the Jewish Sitka settlement approaches its reversion back to Alaskan control and almost certain eviction.

For imagination and the sheer beauty in his use of language, I am sorry my reading of Chabon's book doesn't do it justice. It is gorgeously written and parts of it are geniusly funny. The characters pay homage to a sort of 1940's detective noir style of development, but their circumstances are so surreal, they don't end up seeming trite or simplistic. The plot itself, of a Jewish settlement in the most unlikely of places, is a testament to the creative mind of Chabon, and the underlying sadness of the people, at home, but not at home, living under the false-illusion of control and stability for 60 years and now faced with almost certain eviction and the desperate reality of having no place to call home, while it's not lamented openly on each page, weaves it's way through each character and their stories.

Given how absent-mindedly I read this book and how much I enjoyed it, I imagine that had I read it with both eyes and all of my brain, it would have blown me away.