The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Posted by : atcampbell | On : July 7, 2008

July 7: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Nine of us gathered at the North Village Library to discuss The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the recent Nebula-winner by Michael Chabon. The book is set in an alternate world where a large Jewish population settled in Alaska instead of Israel after World War II. The plot, set roughly in our present, is a police procedural mystery. Four of us had read Chabon’s earlier work. All of us started the book, with five finishing. Also, four of us had met the author when he’d been in Austin earlier this year.

One person described the protagonist, Meyer Landsman, as “Sam Spade as a Yiddish Cop.” She’d read the book twice and felt it was better on a second reading.

Another felt the story had a fascinating concept. The sliver of history that served as the branching point of the alternate history wasn’t known to him. He felt the detective story was great. He loved the Yiddish culture. The book had supernatural elements that added flavor, but were secondary to the story. He felt that this book was a page-turner. He thought it was a successful mix of fantasy, reality, comedy, and murder.

Most of us raved about Chabon’s writing style. We thought he wrote wonderful and convincing dialog. One member felt that each page showed lots of work, and the plot was secondary to the writing. Another commented that Chabon’s prose is dense. She found startling and interesting enrichments and embellishments in his sentences. The prose style initially distracted her from the storytelling.

One person felt the plot was secondary to the characters. She wondered if the story was a fair representation of Yiddish culture. She was surprised our book pictured so morose a book, since our group does not generally like such books.

Another member commented that the Yiddish culture is dead on. He felt the Yiddish street gangs were hilarious. As an old diehard chess player, the book grabbed him early. He appreciated the great level of detail. He liked the boundary maven who drew up lines for the Sabbath. The portrayal of the legalism in Jewish culture was hilarious.

One person said that she zoomed through this book and strolled through rereading. She loved the reverse similes used to introduce Yiddish terms. She thought it felt real. She loved that this book portrayed a gay Messiah, who nobody deserved.

We had some discussion of the thriller plot. We debated why a character was killed, and discussed the political motivations for blowing something up.

We talked about the strong chess element of the novel. Several of us learned some chess strategy from reading the book and the group’s discussion.

One reader did not come away from this book with a warm feeling. He thought the book was well-written, but felt the dense prose style made it less fun to read. He does not enjoy the mystery genre, so he was not thrilled by this book’s cross-genre nature. He didn’t like many of the characters, but admitted to occasionally laughing at the protagonist’s soliloquies. He did appreciate the female character whose purse seemed to hold anything she might ever need.

Several people were put off by the book’s use of flashbacks. These were written in the present tense, and it was often difficult to determine when a flashback had started. Another person complained that a flashback late in the book, which revealed crucial information, broke the narrative point of view. The person relating the flashback was impaired and could not communicate well, so it was not clear how the narrator could ever get this information.

Another person loved every sentence, and felt the book worked on all levels. He thought the story was funny and clever, and he loved the characters.

Overall we found this to be a strong novel, and we had an excellent discussion. Many of us plan to read more Chabon books soon. After the meeting, many of us had a nice dinner at Fuddrucker’s.

— A. T. Campbell, III