by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & The Yiddish Policeman's Union

by Michael Chabon

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n 1948, the state of Israel is formed and quickly destroyed by an Arab-Israeli war. The American government, not knowing what to do with the refugees, relocates them to Sitka, Alaska. They're given some freedoms but no permanent status.

Michael Chabon's latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, exists in this fake context. In the fictional world he has created, present-day Sitka is a town of six million Jews. It's about to revert to Alaskan control, and most of the "Yids" are going to have to go. In the midst of such upheaval, Meyer Landsman -- detective, alcoholic, divorcee, fleabag motel resident -- has just found one of his heroin-addled neighbors with a hole in his head. Landsman is told not to pursue the case because no one cares and because Jewish Sitka's going to cease to exist soon. Landsman, though -- because he's a cop and Chabon's decided to stuff his Byzantine prose into the form of a dime-store noir -- can't just let it go.

And so it begins, with Landsman plummeting through Sitka's social strata from chess clubs to diners to orthodox enclaves looking for a perpetrator among the thugs, messianic Jews and Zionists only to find -- past Landsman's bizarrely plugged-in family, the Yiddish mafia and the FBI -- a much deeper conspiracy.

The junkie, Mendel Shpilman, was the son of a rabbi who was both spiritual head of Sitka's Hasidim and a criminal kingpin. As important as Daddy is, the son may have been even greater: Some people, hoping to remedy the uncertainty of the Jewish situation in Sitka by restoring Israel, think that Mendel Shpilman may have been the Messiah.

Fascinating conceit. Chabon, though, cares more about his labyrinthine plot than about the people in it. The more unwieldy and conspiratorial and international things get, the less focused the book is on the really interesting stuff: the Jewish community, their interminable Diaspora, their relationship with God, the perpetually unfulfilled promise of a Messiah. After giving us this engrossing, insular little world, Chabon turns too quickly from it. Keeping the conspiracy focused on the Yids of Sitka would have made for a more enjoyable, layered read.


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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.