Michael Chabon: Gentlemen Of The Road
Looking at the cover of Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen Of The Road (2007) I was reminded of similar volumes consumed in my youth wherein lay the swashbuckling tales of Robin Hood or fragmented accounts of Sinbad’s voyages, often accompanied by black and white illustrations that highlighted scenes from the text. The subtitle being ‘A Tale Of Adventure‘ confirmed what the mountains and men on horseback implied: that within there was a journey. Like most adventures, there is a reward so, seeking mine, I saddled up and hit the road.
As the title of his 2001 Pulitzer winning The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay shows, Chabon is no stranger to adventure, and I’ve wanted to read his work for some time. But ever since a 2002 essay decrying most literary short fiction Chabon’s work has, apparently, become increasingly genre inspired and I’ve been loathe to try it. Nostalgia for those adventure books of old, however, won out.
As we meet the titular gentlemen they come separate to a tavern in order to swindle the locals. The only thing that connects them is that they are both Jews, for the first is Amram, a large African, his skin “as lustrous as the tarnish on a copper kettle”, and his companion is, Zelikman, a “Frankish scarecrow” and surgeon of sorts. Fooling the locals they are strangers, their insults soon devolve into a staged brawl, which gives Chabon the chance to write action and he does so in a pleasing way:
It was a contest of stamina against agility, and those who had their money on the former began with confidence in the favorite and his big Varangian ax, but the African, angered, grew gross and undiscerning in his ax-play. He shattered a huge clay jar full of rainwater, soaking dozen outraged travelers. He splintered the wheel spokes of a hay wagon, and as the solemn Frank danced, rolled and thrust with his slender bodkin, the berserker ax bit flagstones, shedding handfuls of sparks.
Once discovered, however, they find themselves on the road with an offer they can hardly refuse. A king’s ransom to deliver a youth named Filaq to the Khazars in Azerbaijan. What would seem an easy enough task is pandered by mercenaries sent to eliminate the youth for he is heir to the khaganate, although a rogue general seeks to sieze power. The road ahead is one of action and discovery – mostly action, though – and an ever increasing body count, culminating in a possible reason for why the Khazars converted to Judaism, something which history doesn’t know.
There are wonderful moments in the book, small lines here and there that force an image, Amran”reading the alphabet of horseshoe prints” after a scuffle, or humorous similes of doing something as “easily as a sailor handling a blasphemy”. But these snippets don’t supplement the whole in what is a boring, verbose, fool’s errand of a book, bogged down in Chabon’s efforts to emulate classic adventure books while adding a literary sheen.
I admit that on reading Gentlemen Of The Road I found myself reading passages again, trying to pick up the information they carried, but the many terms I found obscure (ostler? mahout) never allowed me to truly settle into the narrative. And every time I did so I wanted to quit the adventure, to pack up and go home. For all its flash pretensions of adventure and capturing the genre it seeks to sit alongside, it forgets to pack the most important thing for the road: excitement.
January 16, 2008