Meyer Landsman, ‘the most decorated shammes in the District of Sitka, the man who solved the murder of the beautiful Froma Lefkowitz by her furrier husband, and caught Podolsky the Hospital Killer, has been ‘flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof for nine months ‘without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered – but that all changes page one of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the fourth grown-up novel by Michael Chabon. ‘Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.’
We learn a whole lot relatively quickly. Take Landsman, he may once have been ‘the most decorated shammes’ but those days are behind him – these days he’s an infuriating alcoholic who avoids food like it will poison him and wakes from black-outs to find himself sitting in a chair in his room with his gun in his hand. Sitka, the place in which Landsman lives and works, is a suburb of Alaska – a suburb of Alaska (in a twist of fictional invention) given over to the Jews at the end of WWII for a period of 60 some years, a period that is weeks away from ending. Many Jews are packing up, getting ready to leave, the Reversion – as it is known – promising nothing but yet one more opportunity to pack up and move on for the majority of the Jewish populace. Landsman’s partner and best friend Berko Shemets and his wife and their children are applying for visas and the like, preparing themselves for whatever it is that comes next – but not Landsman. Landsman doesn’t know what he’s going to do. Drink himself into another stupor more than likely. What’s more, his wife – his ex-wife – Bina has just been made his boss and she’s told him that – between now and Reversion, all she wants him and Berko to do is close files. There are 11 open files. She wants them all dealing with. As far as Emanuel Lesker is concerned, forget it.
But Landsman can’t forget it. Landsman investigates, ostensibly but not really on the hush-hush. Lasker is a false name, he discovers. Lasker is really a guy called Frank who played chess sometimes at the Cafe Einstein, winning money offof the other players which he used to buy smack. But it turns out Frank isn’t Frank either. Turns out Frank is Mendel Shpilman, whose father is Rabbi Heskel Shpilman, ‘a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running‘ – the Rabbi is known to have connections, is known to have his fingers in a fair few pies, is not averse to the odd illegal act, heads up a criminal family of sorts, the Verbovers. Within hours of paying the Rabbi a visit, Landsman is pulled from the case. Within 24 hours he’s lost his badge and his gun as well. Not that that stops him from trying to find who put the bullet through Mendel’s head or from sticking his Noz where it’s not wanted…
There is a great deal to like about Chabon’s latest. For one thing, when you make it all the way through from one side to the other, you see that each and every aside or digression has a place in the fulfilment of the narrative arc (early on, for example, Landsman bumps into a newspaper man called Brennan – we don’t hear from Brennan again until the last page of the novel; also early on, an allusion is made to Israel, how Sitka is just about the farthest place from – ‘The Holy Land has never seemed more remote or unattainable than it does to a Jew of Sitka – but this forms the entire crux of the novel, in many ways). There is a playfulness at work here, as there was in The Final Solution, but The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is much more involved, much more complex and, it has to be said, much more demanding. You could compare The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy only, where Auster uses ambiguity to achieve his aims, Chabon uses detail. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is intensely detailed. It’s also awash with Yiddish. There are schtarkers and schlemiels and shoyfers and Shnapish the Dog yamulkes. If the title doesn’t colour you in, know this: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is very Jewish. It would make a great movie scripted by Woody Allen and filmed by the Coen Brothers. There is a cast of thousands and you learn a great deal of backstory, personal back stories and more general geo-politic backstories. There is arguably also a link to Roth’s The Plot Against America in the fictionalising of certain strands of Jewish history.
But that’s all by the by. Is it actually any good? Well, if truth be told, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union takes a little time to settle. The level of detail, the narrative voice Chabon chooses to adopt, makes it hard to love The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at first and in the end. There is more fun to be had here than there was in The Final Solution, and there are some great images conjured up along the way but, if truth be told, it isn’t as satisfying or as entertaining as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which I think stands as Chabon’s masterpiece to date). In the beginning, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union reminded me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, another book I had trouble warming to. I’d say it takes about 80 pages to get into the book and, when you’re into it, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union rattles along at a fair old pace. However, I did say that the problems with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union exist in the beginning and at the end. The last forty or fifty pages of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union twist like the twistiest twisty thing you’ve ever twisted. You find yourself (or I found myself, at any rate) flicking back, thinking and who was that again? – which might just mean I’m a bear with a little brain – or it might just be part and parcel of the kind of book Chabon is writing. But it does get in the way of out and out pleasure – and sometimes, when I read a book, I can be quite the hedonist. Pleasure pleasure pleasure. That’s what I want. It’s what I got in spades from reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a different kind of book, I suppose.
Any Cop?: A beautifully written yet exacting and demanding comic thriller from Chabon that – at least first time through – leaves you feeling like you’ve just come off the nightshift after a 24 hour slog.