Review

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure

by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon has always had a populist streak. Despite the
fact that he has won significant literary honors, including the
Pulitzer Prize, Chabon still includes elements of popular genre
fiction in almost all his work --- from THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF
KAVALIER & CLAY (about a pair of cartoonists and the superhero
they create) to his most recent novel, THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S
UNION, a send-up of classic noir thrillers. Now, in GENTLEMEN OF
THE ROAD, Chabon indulges his taste for old-fashioned,
swashbuckling adventure stories in a novel that combines
old-fashioned storytelling with big ideas.

As befits a story that feels, at times, as if it were written a
hundred years ago, GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD was originally released in
serial installments in The New York Times. Just like
the best serialized fiction of the past (Dickens's novels come to
mind), Chabon's book is filled with cliffhangers, plot twists and
unanswered questions, all designed to keep readers on the edge of
their seats until the next installment. Gary Gianni's detailed,
expressive line drawings, reminiscent of the work of classic
illustrators such as N. C. Wyeth, also enhance this vintage
feel.

The story begins with a bang, as a massive Abyssinian named Amram
(who carries a massive axe dubbed "Defiler of All Mothers") and a
lanky Frank named Zelikman wind up in an apparently deadly duel
outside a caravanserai. The year is 950, and Viking marauders,
violent political struggles and warring tribes have made for a very
unstable situation in the eastern foothills of the Caucasus
Mountains, where the story is set.

But all is not as it seems in this high-stakes duel, and before
long, Amram and Zelikman, both alive and well, are eager to collect
their pay and be on their way to their next money-making scheme.
This time, though, the Jewish confidence men's fates become
inextricably tied up with that of a foul-mouthed, red-haired young
Khazar (from the warlike Jewish kingdom near the Caspian
Sea).

It turns out that the Khazarian adolescent is none other than
Filaq, the youngest son of the deposed and murdered Khazar warlord.
Despite their aversion to the prickly, fiercely private Filaq,
Amram and Zelikman get caught up in the young prince's quest to
dethrone the fierce Buljan and restore Filaq's family to power.
Surprises --- and dangers --- abound at every turn, however, and,
just like Amram and Zelikman's fight that opens the novel, little
is as it first seems.

GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD is chock-full of pithy one-liners, clever
turns of phrase and creative curses that showcase Chabon's wit and
wordplay to its fullest. With a cast of thousands, including
prostitutes with names like "Flower of Life," bloodthirsty villains
and some truly personable elephants, Chabon's novel bursts with
life and, yes, with adventure. Although the author's afterword
attempts to posit the book in a broader Jewish historical and
literary tradition, ultimately this "Tale of Adventure" is just
that --- a ripping good yarn, complete with swordfights, treachery
and hidden identities. It's clear that Chabon had almost as fun
writing GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD as his fans will have reading
it.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure
by Michael Chabon

  • Publication Date: October 30, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 204 pages
  • Publisher: Del Rey
  • ISBN-10: 0345501748
  • ISBN-13: 9780345501745