The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

After being disappointed by The Wonder Boys, I did not think I would be returning to this author. Two things made me buy this book. One: the title was so wonderful and the premise on the jacket so off the wall, that I was compelled to put it in the stack in the crook of my arm and purchase without thought. Two: without thought meant that I did not look at the author’s name. Had I, I might have hesitated. I confess that while I was cleaning my bookshelves I found another by this author that I had bought based on the title. I hoodwinked myself!

This book is a 3 ½ star read. As I said, the premise is fantastic. The Federal District of Sitka has been declared a safe haven for Jews after the Holocaust. The fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948 and temporary states or districts have been created around the world. It is now, 60 years later and the District is about to revert back to Alaskan control, sending the members of the community into a tailspin as they attempt to get passports and resident status’ in countries around the world. Some are trying to remain in Sitka as well.

In the homicide division of the Sitka police, the detectives are being told to wrap up their cases in neat bows for the handover. But there is one case Meyer Landsman just cannot let go of that easily. A murder has occurred in the rundown hotel in which he lives – a junkie, a nobody – but Meyer is drawn in and unable to let go. Meyer’s own life is a shambles for a whole variety of reasons. The story takes place all over Sitka (probably as you would never know it) and the panhandle. There are Hasdic Jews, there are reform Jews, there are Eskimos and Inuits and Tlingit’s (both partially Jewish and not Jewish at all). There are good guys, bad guys and shades of gray. There is religion and politics. Unlikely tough guys and even more unlikely saviors and messiahs.

The story was great. I enjoyed it immensely and it definitely kept my interest and when I tried to explain this book to a friend it sounded weird even to my ears. This is a book you will either love or hate. This takes me back to why this book is only 3 ½ stars. This author simply cannot stop himself from using a ten dollar word where a fifty cent word would not only work, but work so much better. He has no economy in his writing. While some authors can get away with a lot of detail, because it complements the story or even enhances it, Chabon just hammers the reader with egomanical levels of word smithing. It is as if the story were a wall he is spackling, and he perceives cracks where none exist and compulsively fills said cracks with words.

There are times when this style detracts from the story so much that as a reader, I became utterly frustrated with the book and despite my enjoyment of the overall story, I would scan the pages wondering “How long till the end?” when this occurs over and over, one can become bored and I imagine that more than one reader has thrown the book away or passed it on with the explanation that they simply could no longer stand to read the thing. If you don’t have the stamina or patience to put up with this, then this book will not be for you.

It is my wish that this author would abandon this style for just one book. I believe that if he could write more cleanly, readers would be looking at something really special. There is nothing wrong with using this style for a single book but someone has erroneously validated this as “genius” and it is sticking. Not only is it not genius, but to me, it kind of expresses a lack of confidence in what is otherwise really good writing with excellent stories. I think it also narrows his readership. Dicken’s did not write only for what he thought were those deserving of the intellectual exercise. He wrote for people to read and enjoy the story without letting the building blocks get in the way of the view.

Stick with the story, try to endure to detail and the hyper word usage and underneath, there is a fascinating and fun story.


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