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Monday, November 5, 2007

"Gentlemen of the Road" by Michael Chabon

Order “Gentlemen of the RoadHERE

Unless you’ve been holed up in a sensory deprivation chamber somewhere for the past 20 years you’ve probably heard of Michael Chabon, a writer of such literary fiction as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (2000); “Wonder Boys” which was adapted into a film starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire & Robert Downey Jr.; two short story collections; the YA novel “Summerland” winner of the 2003 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature; “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” (1988); and his latest New York Times bestseller “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”. Mr. Chabon also contributed to the screenplay for Spiderman 2 which just happens to be my favorite of the three movies :) His latest masterpiece is “Gentlemen of the Road”, a short novel that was originally published in the New York Times Magazine as a 15-part serial from January 2007 through May 2007. I guess if you really wanted to, you could register at NYTimes.com and read the book online starting HERE, but if you did that then you would miss out on some wonderful packaging, which includes detailed maps, stunning black-and-white sketches by Eisner Award-winning artist Gary Gianni (Solomon Kane, Tarzan, Indiana Jones) and an additional afterword from Michael Chabon himself :)

Dedicated to prolific science fiction/fantasy author Michael Moorcock, “Gentlemen of the Road” is bit of a departure for Mr. Chabon as it is “A Tale of Adventure” that takes place in the Jewish country of Khazaria—situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea—in 950 A.D. Tone-wise, the short novel has a definite ‘pulp fiction’ vibe of old, drawing comparisons to Don Quixote, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Moorcock himself though personally I was reminded of “The Three Musketeers” and the mismatched pair from Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson & Danny Glover ;) The dynamic duo starring in this particular adventure are “Jews with Swords” Amram—a giant, quick-witted African who wields a mighty axe named “Defiler of Your Mother” and is usually the more reasonable of the two; and Zelikman, a scarecrow-thin Frank who comes from a family of rabbi-physicians, likes to use surgical tools as weapons, and has a thing for hats, horses & hemp. Together, they are con artists, renegades, brigands, hired blades, thieves, gentlemen of the road, and above all, friends. That friendship is tested though when a simple con leads to a much more dangerous and complicated situation, involving a Khazar prince—the beardless, foulmouthed stripling Filaq—who is the last remaining heir to the usurped Bek (Khazaria’s kingship was divided between the Bek who controlled the military, the treasury and basically the whole country; and the Khagan who controlled the Bek). From here, it’s just one adventure after another—daring rescues, raising an army, overthrowing the usurper Buljan, horse & elephant escapades, shocking revelations, prostitutes, and what’s an adventure story without a little romance ;)

Structurally, it’s important to remember that “Gentlemen of the Road” was written as a serial first, so each chapter, which has its own subtitle like “On Payment—And Trouble, Its Inevitable Gratuity”, is like a mini-adventure usually ending with a minor cliffhanger and there are sometimes noticeable gaps in the story between chapters. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with this setup, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Also of note is the prose. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Chabon’s work, let me put it simply—Chabon is a master wordsmith and it’s a real treat reading one of his books, especially if you appreciate writing of a higher quality. In fact, I normally find myself re-reading a passage several times just to marvel at its brilliance which extends to dazzling similes/metaphors, analogies, dialogue and an extensive vocabulary :) That said, I’m not sure if “Gentlemen of the Road” is the best starting place for new Michael Chabon readers—I would recommend “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”, “Summerland” or “Wonder Boys”. In the short novel, Mr. Chabon tends to be a bit more verbose than usual and his long-winded sentences and high-brow language might be too much for some. For myself, I had trouble with a few sentences and there was definitely a whole lexicon of words that I wasn’t familiar with ;) Still, the spirited pacing, idiosyncratic characters and overall mischievousness more than made up for any issues I had with the book. I should also mention the length. Even though “Gentlemen of the Road” comes in under 200 pages including the illustrations, the short novel is surprisingly dense. While the main plot is pretty straightforward, the underlying themes/subplots on religion, the Khazarian kingship, relations with other countries and so on, pack quite a punch. Lastly, from a personal standpoint, I really wish that Mr. Chabon will one day write an extended version of “Gentlemen of the Road”. In my opinion, the author could easily add a couple hundred pages to the book fleshing out characters, filling in the missing gaps in the story, and spending more time developing the culture & political affairs of 950 A.D. Khazaria—which seems like a fascinating time period, but one that I doubt many readers are familiar with—without losing any of the novel’s charm or bravado.

In the end, Michael Chabon once again delivers with “Gentlemen of the Road”, and while the author’s veteran readers may appreciate the effort more than his newcomers, the book comes highly recommended to everyone. For myself, “Gentlemen of the Road” will definitely end up being one of my favorite books of the year and I personally hope to see more of these kinds of adventures from the one and only Michael Chabon

3 comments:

Katie said...

I really want to read this one.

Kevin Brook said...

Since you'd like to learn more about the culture and political affairs of Khazaria, you should check out my book "The Jews of Khazaria", which is one of Michael Chabon's sources. I invite you to learn about Khazaria's religious affairs, its mysterious language, its diplomatic and trade relations with its neighbors, everything... The Second Edition is available from bookstores everywhere, or ask your local library to buy a copy!

Bets Davies said...

Love love love Chabon, but haven't gotten to this one yet. Used to live in the Bay Area and caught him reading a few times. He is one of those writers who can actually give a dynamic performance as well!

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