Michael Chabon

"Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross MAY 2, 2008)

"For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve."

This book should come with a big warning wrapper: "Michael Chabon's latest book is unlike his previous work, it is an homage to classic adventure writing -- your results may vary." That's because it's a book whose enjoyment depends heavily on the reader's expectations, and a number of reviewers seem to find fault with it because of this. If you're a fan of Chabon, be warned that it's miles away from his early work like Wonder Boys or The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and while it shares certain themes with more recent work like Kavalier & Clay, The Final Solution, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, it's a large stylistic departure and really an experiment unto itself.

Originally written in serial chapters published in the New York Times Magazine, the story follows the stylistic and narrative conventions of the old time pulp serials. And if you've never read any old adventure classics like H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain stories, Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories, or Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, then the heavily stylized form may throw you. Indeed, some reviewers have complained that the story is confusing and hard to follow, which frankly, baffles me. Like its literary ancestors, the plot is such that a 10-year-old could follow and recount it, so the conclusion I draw is that the genre itself is defeating some readers. Sure there are leaps of setting and time, a constant stream of new characters, and plot twists aplenty -- but it's hardly daunting stuff. Similarly, a lot of people seem put off by Chabon's use of archaic and obscure words, but that's exactly how a lot of those old adventure stories were written, and the gist of the meanings can be inferred from context in almost every case.

The story itself concerns a pair of 10th-century Jewish "gentlemen of the road" who drift around the civilized world getting by as mercenaries and grifters. Following the classic template, they are a study in opposites, one a hulking black Abyssinian, the other a reedy, pallid German. Neither fits the modern Western stereotype of what a Jew is, and that's very much part of Chabon's point. His writing has long tinkered with the notion of Jewish identity, and here it is taken to colorful but historically accurate extremes. They are classic rogues with hearts of gold (or at least silver), and the story finds them in the Khazar kingdom, a small Jewish land on the west of the Caspian Sea, resting uneasily between Christian and Muslim empires (today the area includes parts of Russia, the Ukraine, and most of the Caucuses). After a great introduction to the two heroes, the story properly kicks off when they find themselves in the company of a deposed prince. Adventure ensues as they try to help him get back home, which involves raising an army and dealing with marauding Vikings, before they even get to deal with the usurper. Violence, treachery, and humor abound, however, some of the material (rape and prostitution) is rather adult and parents should read the book before handing it over to children.

UK EditionThe book is nicely designed -- aside from the cover, which is a total flop (the British edition has a much more evocative cover which is a homage to classic adventure book covers). Each chapter features an illustration from legendary artist Gary Gianni, which help to set the mood and tone. A few of these feel rather hasty and unfinished compared with other work of his I've seen, but he nails the style just right. On the whole, this is a wonderful little entertainment from one of contemporary fiction's big guns, and while it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, it's at least worth trying.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 124 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD at Random House

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)



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About the Author:

Michael ChabonMichael Chabon was born in Washington, D.C. in 1963 and grew up in Columbia, Maryland. His father, Robert S. Chabon, is a physician and lawyer, and his mother Sharon a lawyer. He wrote his first story at the age of 10, recieved an "A" and knew that he wanted to be a writer. He received his B.A degree from the University of Pittsburgh and his MFS in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine. His first novel was his thesis. His professor sent the transcript to a literary agent without telling Chabon, who was offered an impressive $155,000 advance for it.

His novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Summerland, a fantasy novel for young readers, won the 2003 Myhtopoeic Fantasy Award. In late 2006, Chabon completed Gentlemen of the Road, a 15-part serialized novel that ran in The New York Times Magazine, which will be published in book form later in 2007.

Chabon and his wife, the author Ayelet Waldman, live in Berkley, California. They have four children.

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