The plot is sufficiently complex that any explanation will result in greater confusion, but let's just say a bum has been murdered in a deadbeat hotel in the godforsaken corner of Alaska that is now (but not for much longer) the Jewish homeland. Detective Meyer Landsman, a man with an alcohol problem, an ex-wife problem and a troubling sense of duty that can't lead to any good, undertakes the investigation, which leads him to an ultra-orthodox and ultra-corrupt Jewish sect.
What shines through the Yiddish Policemen's Union is exactly what made the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a sterling work (tho' K&C is still supreme): Chabon does not shy away from the darkest moments as Landsman has to investigate his sister's death and contemplate the Jews' imminent exile and whether god is in fact beneficent, but he mixes it with a wry Yiddish irony and a vivid evocation of place, in this case the snow which carpets everything for good or ill.
What could easily be mawkish or empty philosophising makes perfect sense in the heads of his fully-drawn characters. For example, a bereaved mother married to the capo di tutti capi - in this case a 'black-hat' rabbi - ponders where her son went wrong:
But there was always a shortfall, wasn't there? Between the match that the Holy One, blessed be He, envisioned and the reality of the situation under the chuppah. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called that shortfall "the world."Doubt and faith co-exist exactly in that short paragraph - Chabon is able to describe a difficult idea and make it beautiful at the same time.
There is also perfect noirish narration:
His jaws snap together, making each tooth ring out with its own pure tone as the impact of his ass against the ground conducts its Newtonian business with the rest of his skeleton.Perhaps even more to his credit, Chabon managed to keep this noirish action in some sort of vaguely comprehensible frame. Everyone knows that Raymond Chandler couldn't plot for toffee (rather, wasn't interested in it), but Chabon ties together his threads into the sort of plot you wish weren't true but can still believe.
After reading K&C, I didn't think the Yiddish Policemen's Union could live up to it, and it's a different book in many ways: K&C will break your heart (if you have one) over and over, whereas YPU is a slower-burn, but it still burns - all the way down to the butt-end of the soul.