Is it Science Fiction? Fantasy? Romance? Detective Noir? How about all of the above? The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an amazing amalgamation of genres. Definitely a story of redemption and hope, the novel follows the trials and tribulations of homicide detective Meyer Landsman as he attempts to solve the mystery of the murder of a man who looks to be a typical hotel drunkard, at the end of his rope. The type of person someone like Meyer Landsman might identify with. Divorced, down on his luck and mostly drunk, Meyer sees that the end of his world is fast approaching and he wonders if the changes are worth sticking around for. Then this case begins to spark his interest, his ex-wife returns as his boss and he realizes life can’t be found in the bottom of a bottle of Slivovitz.
I admit to sometimes finding the work of Michael Chabon challenging to read, especially when the protagonist is someone I can’t identify with. Although I’m not Jewish, nor an alcoholic detective, there’s a humanity to Meyer Landsman that gives us a hook into his personality and puts us in the cheap seats rooting for him to get his life back together.
I think it must be harder to create a world mirrored on our own, but not exactly like ours, than it is to create entire fictional universes. In a fictional universe, the author is basically the creator, not only creating actions, but also creating reactions to those. In an alternative history such as this one, there are things we identify, like governmental mismanagement or terrorist actions and then those things that are alien to us, such as making Sitka, Alaska home to a Jewish diaspora about to be broken up. The challenge is taking the laws that apply to our real world and slightly twisting them, then following the chain of events in reaction to that twist. As a reader, we think we know what to expect, but Chabon always has that twist waiting around the corner.