Sometimes I buy a book for its cover. If I had unlimited funds and more room in my apartment, I’d buy books for their covers every day. (Check out the amazing archive site I found this morning while looking for a picture of the cover of this book: http://bookcoverarchive.com/) That was the story when I picked up The Yiddish Policemen’s Union last winter. I’ve always loved Michael Chabon, but I hadn’t heard anything about this title and I didn’t even notice that he was the author at first. The cover design is just that compelling, and it felt nice to hold, too. Matte cotton paper cover and rag pages. Nice.
Then, of course, I read it, and the pleasure of the cover receded behind the pleasure of the book, which is brilliant. It’s hands down my favorite thing I’ve read in the last five years, and I recommend it all the time to everyone. The setup is complicated, so in the interests of not getting overwhelmed by my own project I’m going to cheat and give you the book jacket summary:
“For sixty years Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a temporary safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.
Homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. And in the cheap hotel where Landsman has washed up, someone has just committed a murder – right under his nose. When he begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, and Landsman finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil and salvation that are his heritage.”
See? What could be simpler, right? And yet I never for one moment felt that nagging sense of doubt that sometimes accompanies an audacious and oddball plot. Although it doesn’t have the same effortless appearance as Olive Kitteridge, there’s comfort and ease in reading this book. The craft is evident in every sentence, but that’s part of the intense pleasure of reading Michael Chabon: the pure joy of language, without fear of false steps. The man is meticulous.
The characters, the sense of place, the language, even the cover – they all make a perfect book. And who doesn’t love a funny, sorrowful mystery about chess and the Messiah? It’s a masterpiece.