“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is the latest novel from Michael Chabon, whose stunning mastery of language and gift for storytelling make him one of the best living fiction writers. This book doesn’t approach the genius of his Pulitzer-winning “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” but I guess that’s the hazard of winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature: It’s all downhill from there.
“Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is still a delight, though, a mixture of Jewish mysticism and hard-boiled detective fiction that only someone as clever and imaginative as Chabon could come up with.
It imagines a world where, instead of the nation of Israel being established in the 1940s, the Jews were given a reservation in Alaska to call their own. Now, 60 years later, that territory is about to revert to American control, and the Jews will be dispersed for the umpteenth time in their history.
The story is about a police detective working to solve a murder in the waning days of the Jewish reservation. The book uses many of the old elements of detective stories — including the alcoholic loose-cannon cop who has his badge taken away but keeps working on the case anyway — and drops them into this Jewish culture, with its Yiddish slang, its traditions, and its religious subcultures.
Chabon paints a rich, detailed world of modern Jews living in uncertainty and hoping for redemption, both on a personal and a national level. His writing is humorous, insightful, and evocative. When he uses figurative language to describe a feeling, you know exactly the feeling he’s describing. It’s another fine novel from this very fine author.