The Yiddish Policeman's Union
by Michael Chabon
I can summarize my review as follows: This is the best-written cheesy mystery/thriller EVER.
I stayed away from reading this book when it first came out because nothing about it appealed to me. I'm not Jewish, I hate alternate history, I don't read mysteries or thrillers, and I've never been to Alaska. The only reason for me to ever read this book is my faith in the author. I sense the publisher felt the same way since you'll notice the author's name is much larger than the book's title on the front cover and spine and the back prominently talks about all his OTHER works. It's like they're saying, "Who cares what this about; it's Michael Chabon, one of the best freaking writers alive! Buy it!"
The thought that keeps humming through my brain is: whatever possessed the man to write this? To me, this is like Picasso writing a cookbook or Einstein publishing a book of poetry. It's a complete waste of talent for such a great writer to concoct something that's part a mystery that isn't mysterious and part a thriller that isn't thrilling.
If you haven't read the other reviews and such to know what this debacle is about, it's about Meyer Landsman, a policeman cut from the John McLane mold in that he generally shambles around with a hangover all the time since his marriage--to his former partner and current boss--broke up. He's woken from his stupor by the manager of the motel where he lives to investigate a murder next door. A mysterious chess-playing heroin addict has been murdered. As Landsman investigates the killing, he's drawn into conspiracies that involves Hasidic gangsters (the leader of whom is like a Jewish Jabba the Hutt), a fanatical American government that makes the current regime seem tame, and dairy cows. In this alternate universe Palestine is still in Muslim hands, having routed the Zionists in 1948, but the arrival of a Messiah--Jabba's son, who is the aforementioned chess-playing junkie--signals that it's time to bring on a new Crusade to bring on the End of Days.
As the plot continued to get more ridiculous, I kept hoping for Mr. Chabon to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but that never materialized. Instead, the end seems tacked-on and by then the solution to the mystery makes little difference, so that it's completely underwhelming.
I suppose the biggest problem I have--and I'm sure others will have as well--is the colossal shadow cast by the author's previous adult novel, the Pulitzer-winning "Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." This novel is nothing like that, except for Meyer's fascination with the World's Fair and in the grand Chabon tradition one character turning out to be gay. The most notable difference is that while "Kavalier and Clay" had a sunny optimism of two poor kids bringing a dream to life and embracing The American Dream, "Yiddish Policeman's Union" is as dreary as its Alaskan setting, mired in a world of bitterness and hatred that is perhaps a dark reflection of our current situation.
On the technical side, the writing is of course superb, beyond reproach, and a heap of other complimentary adjectives. It's just that this great writing is in service of a plot better suited for Dan Brown or the "Left Behind" boys. On the whole, I don't know who this novel is aimed at. Mystery/thriller/alternate history fans will not enjoy the literary style or the heaping helping of Judaism or the slow pace with almost no payoff. Literary fans will enjoy the writing style but (should anyway) find the plot trite. I suppose if you know a lot about Judaism, you can tolerate alternate history, and you liked slow-paced mystery/thrillers with almost no payoff this is YOUR book. Me, I'm going to disavow its existence.
I'm going to tarry a moment longer to put forth a theory. The victim who sets this whole thing into motion, Mendel Shpilman the chess-playing junkie, is credited as the Messiah of the Jews with allegedly magical powers of healing and so forth that makes him a superstar at an early age. But Mendel grows weary of this gift and so goes into hiding, spending his time shooting heroin and hustling chess games for money, squandering his tremendous gifts. In a way you could say the same of the author. "Kavalier and Clay" made Mr. Chabon a superstar, but ever since then he's done the next best thing to hiding in putting out a children's book, a Sherlock Holmes novella, pulp magazines, comic books, and even contributing to the story for "Spider-Man 2." And now we have a cheesy mystery/thriller. Perhaps art does imitate life and in this case that would be a very sad thing.
That is all.