The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

By

Waffle House. There’s something suspect about a restaurant that has the exact same floor plan no matter where you go. The more I think about it the more I wonder if that shouldn’t be comforting. Maybe it’s the guy in the booth under the two-way mirror giving me the stink-eye and working a set of yellowed false teeth in and out of his mouth like a perverse cuckoo clock that throws me off. I don’t know but they can scatter, smother, and cover a mean hash brown.

I sit down at the far end of the waffle-bar and finish off a glorious conspiracy of grease, meat, and cheese that labels itself a ‘melt.’ Whether that claim is a description of what it is or what it does to my digestive track, I choose not to think about. When I’m done, I exhaust a small mountain of napkins to clean the grease off my fingers. I slide the plate out of the way, pull out a dog-eared book, and read while I wait for Marge, or Madge, or some other hallowed name out of that long lineage of waitresshood, to refill my sweet tea and slap the check onto the bar.

I get lost in the book. It’s a good one. For a few minutes I’m not in the Waffle House, I’m in Sitka, Alaska.  It’s cold there, and raining. There’s a black and green bruise of a cloud over the city and a dead messiah in the room down the hall. There’s a detective, a drinking problem, an ex-wife, and a murder to solve.

“What ya reading, hon?”

I’m back in the Waffle House. Madge is standing over me with one hand propped on a crooked-out hip and the other dangling an aluminum pitcher of sweet tea. My check is laying in front of me, stuck to the bar by a spot of grease that’s already soaked through the paper turning it pale and translucent. I’m not happy about the interruption so my answer is flat and humorless.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”

She doesn’t get the hint. Instead she works the wrinkles of her face into a question mark and asks, “Yiddish? What’s that?”

“It’s like Jewish,” I tell her, hoping she’ll top off my tea and go find an order to take. She doesn’t do either. Her face unwrinkles itself to some extent and her tweezed eyebrows crawl an inch up her forehead in recognition.

“Ah, so it’s one of the classics!”

I stare at her and wonder what to do with this proclamation. The possibilities are endless and entertaining but I settle on agreeing with her and ask for some more tea.

“Sure, hon.”

Then she’s yelling at the short kid in front of the griddle with the silver spatula and the soul patch and I’m free to go back to Alaska.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is not the type of book that I’m normally drawn to. I’m not a fan of mysteries, or hard-boiled detectives, or the Jewish classics for that matter. I’m a huge fan of great books, though. I knew Chabon’s name from things like Wonder Boys, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay but thanks to the million and one other books I’m trying to mark off my list, I’d never gotten around to reading anything of his. When it came time to pick up a new book a couple of weeks ago, I happened to hear that his newest one had won the Hugo award for Science-Fiction. That threw me for a bit of a loop. It didn’t sound like science-fiction to me. Were these Yiddish policeman on Mars? Did they use the Force?

I know, I know, that’s not what defines sci-fi. I’m kidding. But my interest was piqued enough that I bought the book. I’ve been eating it up ever since. It speculates an alternative history in which the U.S. opened a district of Alaska as a temporary sanctuary for Jewish refugees during WWII, an idea that is rooted in an actual proposal voted down by congress. Fast forward to the present day, Israel doesn’t exist, the district of Sitka is a decaying metropolis on the verge of its reversion to the Alaskan Indians and millions of Jews are facing a new exile. Detective Meyer Landsman, divorced, depressed, and alcoholic is just waiting for the end but there’s a dead body in the room down the hall and it’s a case that won’t leave him alone.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is exactly what it sounds like: a gritty, noir, murder mystery with all the usual suspects—only it’s a great deal more. For starters, it’s Yiddish. It’s bizarre and more fascinating the more you think about it. It even has a Yiddish glossary to guide the reader through it’s idiomatic slang (such as sholem which normally means “peace” but has been corrupted to mean “piece” or “gun” as in “packing a sholem”). He’s created a believable city, an underworld and culture of decay and hoped-for renewal that’s unmistakably Jewish, both foreign and familiar.

Chabon’s writing is sharp and sarcastic and his characters are as broken and fading as Sitka itself. He’s filled the city and the people in it with a sense of decline and hopelessness that’s matched by the stubbornness with which they refuse to simply surrender. When I finished the book, I wanted the story to go on. It’s a world so real you want it to exist even when your window into it has closed.

Throughout the entire book, I kept thinking to myself, this would make a fantastic Coen Brothers movie and it turns out that they are in fact adapting it as you read this (you can’t see me but I’m doing the happy dance). Think of it as a mixture of Fargo and Miller’s Crossing and something like L.A. Confidential—only Yiddish. Awesome, no? Do yourself a favor—don’t wait for the movie. Read the book. I’ve got it on the best authority that it’s a Jewish classic.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


11 Comments

  1. Nathanael

    You wrote, “When I finished the book, I wanted the story to go on.”
    This is a sure sign of giftedness in the writer, whether a book or a song or a movie or a play or even a sermon. If the audience wants you to keep going, you’re onto something.

    Sounds like a great book. I’ll be adding it to my ever-growing to-read list.

    Shalom (peace).

  2. Loren Eaton

    I ‘m interested in the book (Chabon is a good friend of Neil Gaiman, who is also Jewish and also a brilliant writer), but wary, too, because of the portrayal of Christians. No spoilers here, but from what I understand the ending hinges on particularly, well, unhinged Fundamentalist sect. it sounds like a rabid secularist’s perception of evangelicals. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  3. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I don’t want to spoil the ending but, yes, a radical Jewish sect plays into it. There are very few references to Christians at all. Altogether I’d say the book takes a fairly neutral stand on both politics and religion, there are plenty of characters that either side of can claim as their own. It never came across to me as an ‘issue’ book though, it’s primarily a good story.

  4. Chris Slaten

    I’ve a heard a lot of good things abour this book. Thanks for putting it back on my radar. It’s going to have to wait until I read Kavalier and Clay, which is currently sitting unopened by my bed.

  5. Kim

    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE books of any genre, any day, any time. And I read lots. And I’m not generally attracted to books with comic book art on the cover, or comic book artists on the pages. This is among the reasons why I rank Chabon among the best storytellers of this era. His storytelling is so masterful that you don’t even have to like the subject to love the story.

  6. James Glass

    The though of a Yiddish policeman using the Force just cracks me up. When I read that line, I couldn’t get the smile off my face or stop laughing! Great hearing from you man. Thanks!

  7. Peter B

    Hey Pete,

    If you like great writing that doesn’t necessarily gel with its sci fi label, you should try some Cheeseburger Brown. He’s not a believer, and it certainly bleeds through sometimes, but his love of the craft shows itself in fascinating characters and a wonderful diverse (yet cohesive) universe. Plus, you can read all his stories for free on the web!

    I got started with Simon of Space, his first full-length novel, and then jumped into his ever-expanding collection of interwoven stories.

    Also, thanks for the tip; I’ll have to pick up this one myself… though I may not make it back to a Waffle House any time soon.

  8. Caroline

    Michael Chabon spoke at Davidson College (my place of education right now, and well-loved it is) last year and I was blown away by his humour and eloquence. I found the Yiddish Policemen’s Union and gave it a shot.

    I’m into the weird and I usually love strange books, esp. ones with a sci-fi or mystery bent. Somehow, I did not find any connection to the novel; I kept wishing that I liked it better or found some sort of link to any of the characters, but no luck. Unfortunately, it’s now in the guilty list of books that I ought to finish but haven’t.

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