Exhibit 5.21

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

I feel like I may have a hard time writing about this book. Not only did I read it weeks ago, I went into it with unreasonably high expectations which may have clouded my opinion of it slightly. That is not to say I didn’t love it–I did–but I felt like I enjoyed it more for its prose and its noir than its statement. That isn’t even a critique, it’s just a reversal of expectation that’s left me somewhat confused as to what place it occupies in Chabon’s canon.

The premise, much discussed, is immediately compelling and from the first sentence Chabon instills his broken hero with the desperation and cynicism of his exiled race. The plot moves in Chandler-esque fits and starts punctuated with scenes of our detective isolated, drunk, and unsure of his life and his case. Those, the moments where you can smell the cigarettes, the moments where the premise becomes background rather than what is driving the plot, were my favorite. Let’s call this the small plot (which is to say small in scope not importance).

There’s so much that’s memorable about the world Chabon has created that it almost hurts to say that I was happier when the book was just a murder mystery set in an alternate reality. It’s an almost irresistible thing to imagine and it’s flawless as a setting. As an actor in the plot, however, I found myself less convinced with how Chabon’s Sitka leads to this murder leads to this conspiracy leads to this ending. Let’s call this the big plot.

The big plot bothers me though it’s hardly the sort of thing to ruin a novel. It bothers me not because it was any more implausible than anything else in the novel (okay, maybe slightly more) but because I think it takes the leap from an ahistorical but potential reality to something that depends fundamentally on counter-intuitive logic. It’s one thing to casually mention that there was an extended war with Cuba sometime in the 60s or that Marilyn Monroe was first lady as these are really only dressing to the little plot. But when the big plot relies on motivations that seem counter to our understanding of the world, it feels a bit like a cheat.

The rules that govern the little plot seem appropriate for a world only slightly removed from our own. The rules that govern the big plot seem to suggest a more fundamental difference. It’s certainly not an unbridgeable gap, but I’m not sure that it ever gets adequately covered here. Learning the true nature of the big plot, our hero reacts–as we must–incredulously yet he doesn’t seemed shocked by the daunting levels of corruption and commitment needed to pull off such a scheme that, at least in any world related to our own, is undertaken with a very shaky motive.

I’d like to think that I’m just over thinking it–and I probably am–but I couldn’t help but feel like a brilliant, touching story with an unbeatable premise came to a bad end. The little plot is a perfectly wrought murder mystery written in stunning prose. The big plot is at best an ending that reached a little too far and at worst a small political point scored at the expense of the novel’s internal logic and continuity. It’s probably a little both, but it was enough to leave me thinking about how much I disliked being pulled out of the world in the last 50 pages after having read through the previous 350 as if they contained some delicious secret.

Even so, it’s still a fascinating book and deserving of its place on any year end list it finds itself on.

Last thought:
One of my favorite aspects of Chabon’s work is how compelling he can make characters who aren’t on the page. Like Grady Tripp’s wife in Wonder Boys or Art’s father in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the victim here is a great character though he is, of course, dead.

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