I’m not a fan of all of Michael Chabon’s books: I found The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay an absolute wonder, but The Mysteries of Pittsburgh overrated and boring. I approached The Yiddish Policemen’s Union with some anticipation (after all, writers are supposed to get better at their craft with time, aren’t they?) and, while not as delightful as Kavalier & Clay, it was quite an enjoyable read. A noir set in a dystopia, after all, is a very good starting point.
What makes it remarkable is, above all, Chabon’s verbal inventiveness in a mock-Chandler tone of voice. Even if overdone at times (really, would anyone else have the guts to christen a secondary character, a four-foot-seven tribal inspector on a motorcycle, with the name of Willie Dick?), this voice draws the reader in and lights up on almost every page an otherwise very moody story about detective Meyer Landsman, a loser in a pseudo-country that is about to disappear.
According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.
Almost two hundred pages later, Landsman’s boss and ex-wife suspends him for a month after an unauthorized operation has gone very wrong. Here’s what she tells him:
“And of course you’ll get the chance to tell your story. In the meantime, I’m going to keep your shield and your gun in this nice pink plastic Hello Kitty zipper bag that Willy Zilberblat was carrying them around in, okay? And you just try to get yourself all nice and better, right?”
(The Hello Kitty thing is totally out of the blue: I don’t care if it’s product placement, it is utter writerly genius). Finally, a portrait of Landsman’s sister Naomi, whose death in the cockpit of her aircraft a few months before the action takes place turns out not to have been accidental, but to be tied to a vast American conspiracy to blow up the Middle East:
Naomi was a tough kid, so much tougher than Landsman ever needed to be […] She was boyish as a girl and mannish as a woman. When some drunken fool asked if she was a lesbian, she would say, “In everything but sexual preference. ” […] She was not complicated, Landsman’s little sister, and in that respect, she was unique among the women of his acquaintance.
This last example shows how Chabon infuses the genre – notwithstanding the pitfalls of stereotype – with genuine feeling. And that’s what makes The Yiddish Policemen’s Union worth reading.