Gentlemen of the Road

by Michael Chabon
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Gentlemen of the Road

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1799

After beginning his career with two impressive literary novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1995), Michael Chabon grew restless and began exploring various corners of popular culture. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) won a Pulitzer Prize for its look at two young men who create a popular comic book about a superhero battling World War II enemies. An admirer of Philip Pullman, Chabon followed this huge success with Summerland (2002), a children’s fantasy built around the mythical qualities of baseball. Next came The Final Solution: A Story of Detection (2004), in which an elderly Sherlock Holmes solves aWorld War II mystery involving a missing parrot against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Then, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), Chabon paid homage to Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald with an intricate tale of two police detectives in an imaginary Jewish enclave in Alaska. Chabon’s growing interest in pulp literature can also be seen in his editing McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2003); contributing to Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist (2004), a comic book based on the superhero of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; and cowriting the screen story for Spider-Man 2 (2004).

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This background is necessary for appreciating what Chabon is trying to accomplish in Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, a tribute to escapist literature as well as a consideration of Jewish culture of the tenth century. In the tradition of writers of the past, Chabon first published Gentlemen of the Road as a fifteen-part serial in The New York Times Magazine, and his adventure yarn recalls the works of Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as more recent works such as Fritz Leiber’s “sword and sorcery” series that began with Two Sought Adventure: Exploits of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser (1957). It also resembles the fiction once seen in such pulp magazines as Argosy (1882-1978), though written in a more literary style, with echoes of Voltaire’s Candide (1759). An elephant is named Cunegunde in honor of the heroine of Candide.

Around 950 c.e., Chabon’s protagonists travel from the Kingdom of Arran north to Khazaria, “the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.” (This region is now Ukraine.) Though Zelikman, a scarecrow-thin Frankish Jew, is a physician, he is handy with the thin sword he calls Lancet, despite the Frankish law forbidding Jews to bear arms, even in self-defense. Zelikman is descended from a family of rabbis and physicians, but circumstances have led him to become a hired killer. His longtime friend Amram, a huge Abyssinian Jew, carries a Viking battle-ax called Mother-Defiler and claims to be descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Eager to steal anything but women, Amram is a student “of men’s corruptions,” while his cynical comrade’s only principle is to kill only one man at a time. The two are content to travel about, practicing a little medicine and pulling confidence tricks. The novel opens with their staging a bloody sword fight and then absconding with the wagers placed by unwary suckers.

Things begin to change when they meet Filaq, whose family has recently lost the throne of the Khazars, the Turkic tribe that converted to Judaism and established an empire in the Caucasus Mountains, to the warlord Buljan. Whoever controls this region holds the balance of power in the struggles between the Byzantine Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the Caliphate of Baghdad, the Rus (medieval Russians), and Northern plunderers, among others. Chabon has obviously done considerable research into early medieval history, with his portrait of Khazaria seeming half factual and half imaginary. He cannot resist drawing parallels with the conflict in Iraq: “In Baghdad during the Days of Awe this year, the Muhammadans burned Jewish prayer houses and put to the sword any who would not profess Islam.” Having Jews and Muslims trying to work together to restore a fallen kingdom suggests the way the world should be.

Amram and Zelikman care little about such struggles but find themselves, after being robbed, helping Filaq’s insurgency nevertheless, backed by an army of Arsiyah mercenaries. Chabon takes the trio from one cliff-hanging adventure to another in the manner of the film serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Coincidences abound; the three protagonists, as the genre dictates, are constantly separated only to be unexpectedly reunited; and a few characters are not what they seem to be. Chabon also intends a tribute to the road novel, with his heroes encountering all manner of interesting folk on their journey, including a family of Radanite traders who do not see war as an obstacle to business as usual.

As with The Final Solution and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon is not merely writing imitations of such writers as Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (the novel is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, author of “sword and sorcery” books in the Burroughs manner), nor is he parodying the buddy films of the late twentieth century. While many writers might treat such an outdated, disparaged genre as the adventure yarn with ironic, postmodern disdain, Chabon is more affectionate.

His characters may not be as fully realized as those in his other works, but they are believably individualistic, full of personality quirks that bring them to life. Zelikman likes to contemplate his circumstances by smoking a pipe of hemp, in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, trying to forget his tortured past, especially the murder of his mother and sister back in Regensburg. He attempts to keep emotionally remote from everything yet harbors great affection for his wizard’s hat and his beloved horse, Hillel, possessor of “a demonic intelligence that lay somewhere between perversity and fire.” Amram is also scarred by a family tragedy: the disappearance of his daughter.

Chabon has considerable fun playing with literary conventions, especially the relationship between his black and white heroes. Having a black or Native American sidekick has been a staple of American fiction since Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841), though Chabon alters this tradition by making his heroes of equal stature. In his highly influential Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler first called attention to the homoerotic implications of such relationships, especially in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Amram and Zelikman bicker like an old married couple and share an unusual closeness: “As far as Amram knew, his partner had never lain with a woman or a man, and if he had in hard times, on cold nights, shared a companionable bed with Amram, it was a mark of how much the state of their relations resembled those between his partner and Hillel.”

Each of the fifteen chapters features a black-and-white illustration by Garry Gianni reminiscent of the N. C. Wyeth illustrations for books by Cooper and Stevenson, as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s medieval adventure The White Company (1891) and Gianni’s own style in the Prince Valiant comic strip. Gianni’s drawings perfectly capture the characters and scenes described by Chabon and heighten the nostalgia for the adventure genre.

Chabon’s use of dry humor includes a minor, decidedly unfestive character, Hanukkah, and Zelikman’s naming his horse for the famous Jewish religious leader Hillel. There is also a mynah who speaks “excellent Greek,” and heroic deeds are performed by Hillel and an elephant. Chabon’s whimsical approach can be seen in this description of an elephant: “A steady rattle issued from the mysterious machinery of its interior like wind in the branches of a locust tree, over a deeper rumbling, an unmistakable continuo of pleasure as the stripling rubbed at the piebald patch between its phlegmatic little eyes, gummed with a milky effluence of tears.”

Most seriously, Gentlemen of the Road is a meditation on the quest for Jewish identity. Of Amram, Chabon writes, “There was nowhere new for him to wander, no corner where he had not sought the shadow of his home and family.” Chabon’s Jews survive only through cunning, stealth, and violence.

Gentlemen of the Road received mostly glowing reviews, with Alastair Sooke in London’s Sunday Telegraph calling it “a riotous, raucous jeu d’esprit. It’s been a while since I had such fun reading a book.” As a throwback to the adventure yarns of the past, however, it is less consistently entertaining than the best of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. In addition to complaints that the action was not as dramatic as might be expected, some reviewers described Gentlemen of the Road as disjointed because the chapters do not flow smoothly from one to the next, and others considered it more a literary exercise than a fully realized novel.

The novel’s self-consciously mannered prose is the main element elevating the novel above being an adventure pastiche. The Boston Globe’s Steve Almond compared it to “Kipling on steroids.” Chabon writes in a mock-epic style full of arcane words and clauses within clauses:All that remained of the temple, reared by Alexander during his failed conquest of Caucasia and affiant now to that failure and to the ruin of his gods, was a wind-worn pedestal and the candle stub of a fluted column, against which a would-be ruffian named Hanukkah sat propped with his right hand over the wound in his sizable belly, as he had sat for two long days and nights, waiting with mounting impatience for the angel of death.

In an afterword, Chabon describes how he was inspired to write what he imagined calling Jews with Swords, as a break from writing about domestic issues. He argues that because Jews seem “less obviously suited to exploits of derring-do and arms,” it is all the more appropriate to hand his fictional Jews swords and let them rip. Although some reviewers interpreted this coda as a bit defensive, it is a charming way for Chabon to round off his tale.

At its heart, Gentlemen of the Road is a celebration of the transforming magic of literature, as when Chabon, in one of the book’s loveliest passages, describes a character’s memory of “the giant illuminated Ibn Khordadbeh that had so enchanted her as a child, with its maps and preposterous anatomies and flat-foot descriptions of miracles and wonders, page after page of cities to visit and peoples to live among and selves to invent.” One of Chabon’s goals may be to demonstrate that literature need not conform to the standards of the day, especially the naturalism so dominant in the American fiction of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Chabon’s books indicate his desire to restore a sense of fun to the American novel.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

The Boston Globe, November 17, 2007, p. C1.

The Christian Science Monitor, November 6, 2007, p. 13.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 982 (November 2, 2007): 68.

The Guardian, November 3, 2007, p. 16.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 17 (September 1, 2007): 877.

Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2007, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (October 28, 2007): 15.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 35 (September 3, 2007): 43.

Time 170 (November 5, 2007): 74.

USA Today, November 21, 2007, p. B11.

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