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Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

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Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a strange, brilliant book that readers will find difficult to classify. Is it a Zionist Da Vinci Code? A work of alternative reality in the manner of Philip K. Dick? A hard-boiled mystery novel? A grand literary effort in the high style? It is, in fact, all these things, and more.

Twelve years ago, The Washington Post dubbed Michael Chabon as “the young star of American letters.” Chabon, who turns forty-four in a few days, has lived up to the early hype. Since the dawn of the millennium, he has seen his Wonder Boys made into a movie with Michael Douglas, and won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Along the way, he turned down a chance to appear in a Gap ad, and sent People magazine packing when they wanted to place him on their list of the “50 Most Beautiful People.” (And who says that serious novelists don’t lead glamorous lives?)

Now Chabon has treated his fans with a new novel that will rank among his finest works. Imagine, for a moment, that Franklin Roosevelt had responded to the plight of European Jews by setting aside part of Alaska as a homeland for the Diaspora. This intriguing premise is Chabon’s starting point for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – a mind-bending game of what-if similar to Philip Roth’s recent literary effort to re-imagine America if Lindbergh had been elected President in 1940, or Dick’s depiction of the United States in the aftermath of a defeat in World War II.

Chabon takes delight in his alternative Alaska, and lovingly describes all the small details — food, fashion, ritual, place names and the like — in a playful, ingenious manner. Occasionally, he lets a few other snippets of alternative history escape in a passing mention, referring to the first lady Marilyn Monroe Kennedy or a Vietnam-like war in Cuba.

But this imaginative reconstruction of a Jewish Alaska is merely the backdrop for a intricately plotted mystery, which is the second layer in Chabon’s multifaceted novel. Down-and-out detective Meyer Landsman finds a dead body in his skid-row hotel, and is determined to track down the murderer, despite warnings from higher-ups that this is a case that he should not investigate.

The clues he assembles are odd ones. Chess pieces are arrayed in a peculiar endgame position near the body. The deceased lived under different aliases, all drawn from famous chess players in the past. And the victim’s life is as puzzling as his death – some saw him as a pathetic junkie, others as the potential leader of a messianic cult.

The third layer of the plot brings us into the realm of the The Da Vinci Code, where conspiracies and secretive organizations and two millennia of arcane history emerge as provocative undercurrents in the story. Yet Chabon brings all these elements together, seamlessly telling his tale on several different levels. And, as always with Chabon, the entire book is meticulously written. Chabon writes with great intelligence and creativity, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by sentence.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a significant work by one of America’s finest novelists. In the coming weeks, a number of major authors — Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, and others — are releasing books. In short, the competition for best novel this spring will be as hotly contested as the NBA playoffs. But Chabon has made the competition all the stiffer with this brilliant and rich fiction, a whimsical whodunit with a double dose of literary flare.

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