I was introduced to Michael Chabon through an interview on On Point with Tom Ashbrook. I’ve already talked about my love of this show in a previous post, but when I heard this particular episode, I went out and picked up The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
I loved The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Set in Alaska in an alternate timeline where Jews had to be resettled there following the collapse of Israel, the book is, at its heart, a classic whodunit mixed with a thriller. Chabon masterfully introduces the main character, Landsman, and throws him into a murder case that no one, including his boss and the religious leaders of the settlement, want him to solve. But the stubborn detective and his reluctant partner proceed to investigate anyway. Mixed in with this action are well-thought-out descriptions of political intrigue, end of the world prophecy and the relationships between fathers and sons (which is clearly a theme with Chabon, but more on that later).
I think what struck me most about the book was Chabon’s handle on language, including Yiddish. Which was why I was grateful I was actually reading it in e-book form, since it made it easy to just look up the words I couldn’t place on the web. But when I did look up his chosen words, the meanings were so perfect for the way he used them that I was constantly delighted. Perhaps the only thing wrong with the book is that sometimes Chabon’s story was a little slow for my tastes. While Chabon was clearly hiding some deep themes in his whodunit, I prefer action in these types of books to be more high-paced than this book sometimes was. But I enjoyed the overall book enough to pick up a copy of Telegraph Avenue next.
Telegraph Avenue tells the story of two unlikely friends, one white, one black, and their struggles to rescue their vinyl records shop from closure and their relationships from dissolving. And even more so than The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, this book is about fathers and sons and how the relationships between the two can change a person forever. Chabon’s exploration of these relationships is what make this book interesting, that and the references to obscure records that are sprinkled throughout the novel.
Comparing the two novels, it’s clear that Chabon dives straight in to whatever world he is creating and intends to take the readers with him. This is apparent in the language used and even the speed of the action. Unlike The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Telegraph Avenue starts out slow, focusing on characters and how they fit together. This makes sense, since the point of the book is really just to explore these relationships in depth. Unfortunately, I found myself lost among the many descriptions, unsure who was talking and what they had to do with the main characters. The book did get better the longer I read it, and many of the ties between characters were explored. Chabon manages to build up momentum as the book progresses, making the last half of the book more enjoyable and a much faster read than the beginning.
While I didn’t like Telegraph Avenue as much as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I’m going to give Chabon best 2 out of 3 and see how his first novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, fares before I make final judgment on how much I like Chabon. I’m tentatively guessing that the subject matter will make the difference in whether I enjoy his future books, which is unique in an author. Most of the time, if I enjoy one book by an author, I will enjoy all their other books because they stick with a particular style and speed of narrative. Chabon, however, tends to experiment, which is a good thing in an author, if a little bit of a minefield for readers.