The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a bit like The Pelican Brief with Jews. Not that there weren’t any Jews in The Pelican Brief – I actually have no idea about that. But it’s one big “conspiracy thriller” with an all-Jewish cast and TPB was the first thing that popped into my head. It seems slightly ill-advised at this point, but I’d rather not delete 4 rows’ worth of typing 😀
YPU is actually a pretty engaging modern noir police novel, at least on one level: you’ve got the murder, the down on his luck detective, his better adjusted partner and the sassy dame (who happens to be the detective’s ex-wife and brand new boss). If you go up to level 2 – there’s the whole conspiracy thing waiting for you there: our rebel, unruly detective digs into what appears to be an insignificant crime (a dead junkie, isn’t this how it always starts?) only to discover (300 pages and a spoiler alert later) a plot involving the highest government figures. So…if all this sounds like the kind of thing you’d enjoy, then run down to the store and get the book. Me – I was slightly disappointed by the climax as it seems too run-of-the-mill; I’ve been there too many times, in too many movies.
But what worked so much better for me, what I found so much more interesting and engaging were…levels 3 and 4 if you will: the personal drama and, last but not least, the alternative history angle.
The drama! I liked that Landsman wasn’t just a cardboard cutout of an archetype but a three-dimensional character with motivations that ran deeper than the obvious. Sure, he’s a messed up middle-aged drinker, but he’s also curious, cunning, loyal to his friend, partner & cousin and with serious daddy issues. When I put it like this, he sounds exactly like the type of guy I said he’s not, so I guess you’ll have to take my word for it: he jumps right off the page.
Finally, the absolute best part: alternative universe. The whole story takes place around 2008 in Sitka, Alaska, which is temporary independent Jewish settlement (with Yiddish spoken as an official language) about to be “reversed” to the US as per a 60-year-old agreement. The whole population is in turmoil since there’s no other Jewish land where they are welcome and they are once again forced to disperse all over the world (some are even going to Madagascar). In this AU, the state of Israel doesn’t exist (it was destroyed in 1948 and is now Palestinian territory), WWII ended in 1946 after a nuclear bomb was dropped over Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis turned into war (I’m just guessing here, the book only mentions a Cuban war in the 60s), JFK wasn’t murdered but married Marilyn Monroe – and many other deviations which are quite fun to spot. Since the main focus is on the self-contained universe of Sitka, the outside world makes only brief but revealing appearances.
Plus – reading this really is a great deal of fun & Mr. Chabon sure knows how to spin a phrase (his writing feels a bit…spidery – by the time you realize where you’re going, you’re already irretrievably caught). Apparently there’s also a movie in development somewhere out there, and I’m glad to say that the perfect people are currently involved with it: the Coen brothers. I can only hope it gets made.
Speaking of movies, the Oscar nominations were announced a couple of weeks ago and they are boring, with a side of utter disappointment. But what else can you expect? I’ll write about them – and about the movies I’ve seen (and those that I won’t. Ever.) sometime this week. 😀