The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

#19 in my 2007 book challenge was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. I went to see Chabon discuss this book, a recent selection of Talking Volumes. Chabon in person is good looking, funny, and well spoken. I also saw him on the promotional tour for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. He joked about the danger of obsessing over his rank at Amazon. Since winning the Pulitzer, I’m guessing he doesn’t worry so much. Before that reading, I made an embarrassing gaffe. This time I was much better behaved. I stayed in my seat and kept my mouth shut, and listened while Chabon talked and read from his very entertaining book.

My opinion may be biased. I’ve had a literary crush on Michael Chabon since I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in college. It was a book that made me want to become a better reader (see #4). I’ve come to have a great deal of empathy for his wife, author Ayelet Waldman, diagnosed as bipolar after the birth of their fourth child. I admire her further for writing AND being married to Chabon. I would be intimidated to write alongside the multiple-award-winning author who’s been showered with critical acclaim since he was in college. She does, though, and her latest book was well reviewed.

Chabon’s TYPU is an alternate-reality noir, in which Jews were granted temporary exile in Alaska after WWII. Detective (”shammes”) Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a man who lived in his building. He is discouraged from this by his new boss, who is also his ex-wife. In true noir fashion, he continues to pursue his investigation, pissing people off, getting shot at, and obsessing over dames (his ex and his dead sister). It’s a decent mystery, elevated far above the ordinary by its humor, and Chabon’s fluid prose and the eccentricity of the yiddish/noir/alternate history mix. In the end, though, Chabon has too much affection for his characters for anything very bad to happen. In fact, the description of Landsman’s ex is strikingly similar to that of Chabon’s wife. The novel can also be read, I think, as an extended mash note to her.

TYPU succeeds because it unexpectedly tweaks the noir formula. Like John Burdett did with Bangkok 8 (Buddhist noir) and Jonathan Lethem did with Motherless Brooklyn (noir with Tourette’s syndrome), Chabon has taken a seeming incongruity and made it work. TYPU is clever and fun, though perhaps less bitter than it would like to be.

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