They say all stories have been told in one way or another, but to reduce Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to a “whodunit” is a travesty.
When I saw that a fellow reviewer had laughed at the notion of Chabon smiling and patting himself on the back as he wrote, I thought she was being ungracious. This was until after I had completed the book, which another reviewer accurately described as “hyper literate”. Now I can see him doing just that.
Oh yes, this is good writing at its finest, with a plot that pulls together with breathtaking attention to detail (LOTS of detail), incredibly lush descriptions, and droll humor, all of which no doubt account for the myriad honors and awards heaped upon the writer. He earned them all, but in reading, one feels the envy that a wallflower feels in the presence of the homecoming queen, or the 98 pound weakling feels when a muscular Adonis struts his stuff at the beach.
If you want a nutshell version of a review, it’s “Who killed the Yid?” But if you want a nutshell of anything, this book will be too much for you. It is not a tome to be skimmed or looked over while you hold a conversation or watch television. It demands full and complete attention. At first, I didn’t understand this, and had to restart twice when I took the book into my hands right before falling asleep and didn’t remember any of what I had read the next morning. It is better to begin it with full, wide awake attention!
Others have done a fine job of covering the setting, both place and time. There are a lot of characters to shuffle; Chabon does so deftly, but it is the job of the reader to keep up with him. Landsman is the detective and protagonist, but there are so many more, and some people are not what they seem to be. The story is rife with surprises, and I won’t spoil it for you by giving them away.
One thing worth noting as you go into it, especially if, like me, you are reading on an e-reader: the end, though this is not a short book, may feel abrupt because there is a glossary of Yiddish terms at the end, along with a teaser for the next book. Therefore, although all signs pointed to the story’s being nearly wrapped up, I thought Chabon was about to toss one more spanner into the works to fill up about 75 more e-pages. I was startled when the book ended , saying, “Wait. That’s it?” This is unlikely to be a problem if you have the physical book in hand, though.
Over and over again I found myself highlighting passages that were, I thought, the most magnificent figurative language I had ever seen. Eventually I was foolishly highlighting whole pages, and you don’t want them all here. Just know that Chabon has created a strange and miraculous world that features an underworld rebbe (rabbi) and a host of goons as the obstacle, but ultimately the Moriarty to the Yiddish Holmes is a surprise, to say the least.
I conclude with just one bit of philosophical musing dropped in toward the end, which I find irresistible. It does not provide a spoiler, though, because the answer to the puzzle is not revealed here. It’s just a little sample of the marvelous word-smithery wrought by our champion of writers, as Landsman reflects that in the future, “any kind of wonder seems likely. That the Jews will pick up and set sail for the promised land to feast on giant grapes and toss their beards in the desert wind. That the Temple will be rebuilt, speedily and in our day, War will cease, ease and plenty and righteousness will be universal…and every suit will come with two pair of pants.”