Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon says in an afterword that his working title for this highly entertaining adventure story was Jews With Swords. He says that when he told people that, it made them laugh. Well, I like Gentlemen of the Road just fine as a title, but really: there’s a barely-hidden current of pleasure and amusement running through this entire book. Why not laugh?

Zelikman, a gawky and pessimistic Frank, and Amram, a giant Abyssinian, are gentlemen of the road. They are con artists and minor thieves and practicing Jews, and they have a long past together, most of which goes unrevealed but is deeply felt. One evening, they’re swept beyond the usual scope of their activities when they agree to take Filaq, a headstrong and unpleasant heir to the Khazars, back to claim his throne. (I thought Chabon made up Khazaria, a 10th-century Jewish kingdom, but apparently not; he cites sources in his afterword.) The rest of the book is devoted to the kind of swashbuckling that was most popular sixty to a hundred years ago: rampaging elephants, drunken Vikings, switcheroos, beautiful prostitutes, marauding armies, silent poisons.

Chabon seems a little defensive about this foray into unabashed genre fiction. I have no idea why. He does it wonderfully, as you might expect if you’ve read anything else by him: the man can seriously write. This book is huge, grinning fun, but it’s not just fun: Chabon plays with genre conventions, turns them inside-out, gives them a good brushing, sews on new buttons, and sends them back out into the world more fun than they started. There’s pain here, and profound friendship (some of it reminded me of the Aubrey-Maturin relationship in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, only of course less developed), and outright jokes. This book would be a great place to start if you’ve been a little intimidated by the sheer bulk of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (though you should read that, too) — it’s only 225 pages. And it comes with maps and illustrations! Jews With Swords. Why not laugh?

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27 Responses to Gentlemen of the Road

  1. fantaghiro23 says:

    I’m a big fan of Chabon, but I’ve not read this one yet. For some reason, I’ve always put off buying it. So, thank you for the review as it gives me enough reason to bump this one up higher on my To-buy list.:)

  2. Alex says:

    By your descriptions I kept picturing The Princess Bride or Captain Blood by Sabatini. Last year my bookclub read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Gabbon’s entry into the dark detective novel, but I have the feeling it didn’t hit the right cords with us.

    Probably The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay will be more up my alley.

    • Jenny says:

      Actually, this is quite a lot like The Princess Bride or Captain Blood. Good call! Kavalier and Clay is *fantastic*, though. I would definitely recommend that over this.

  3. Annabel says:

    This one is on my TBR – I’ve only read Chabon’s first two books so far, and loved them both, so I’m sure I’ll like this too. The premise for this one reminds me a little of Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would be King’ (wonderful, wonderful film).

  4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite books and I was completely blown away by his writing and how much I enjoyed the book. Since then I will read anything by Chabon!

    This one is new to me – I will have to pick it up.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m in the same boat. I’ve been less impressed by some of his other novels than by Kavalier and Clay, but I haven’t read anything by him that I thought was not well-written.

  5. I loved Kavalier and Clay so this is definitely worth looking into (have to give Chabon another chance after Yiddish Policeman which I strongly disliked). And Jews with Swords is almost as good a title as Snakes on a Plane.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, but I loved Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It was dark, yes, and played with some of the conventions of fast-and-loose plot holes that noir novels often have, but I thought it was terrific.

      I agree with you about the title, though!

  6. Melody says:

    This is the only book of Chabon’s I’ve read, and I was not impressed. I liked the story and characters, but thought the afterword was written much better than the story itself. The first chapter alone drove me nuts! I will end up reading Kavalier and Clay because I generally have good luck with Pulitzers, but I confess that I’m hoping the writing style is different.

    • Jenny says:

      Kavalier and Clay is fantastic! I’m sorry you didn’t have luck with this one. I thought it was well-written and great fun.

  7. Fred says:

    I’ve read two by Chabon: _The Gentlemen of the Road_ and _The Yiddish Policemen’s_ Union. While _Gentlemen of the Road_ was a pleasant read, I was far more impressed with _The Yiddish Policemen’s Union_. It was the YPU that convinced me to put _The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay_ on my TBR list.

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree with you. Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a better, more solid book — this is a light, fun read. But there’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment. I look forward to hearing what you think of Kavalier and Clay — I think it’s his best work by a long chalk.

  8. Jenny says:

    Is this new? Am I dumb not to have heard of it? I am reading Yiddish Policemen’s Union right now, and so far haven’t totally gotten into it, but I love Michael Chabon as a person, and I’m sure I will soon grow to love him as an author.

    • Jenny says:

      It came out in 2007 (and I just discovered, looking it up, that it originally came out as a serial novel in the New York Times Magazine, which is TEN KINDS OF AWESOME.) I’m sorry you’re not getting on with YUP — I liked it, but I read the kind of novels he’s riffing off of, and I also really liked the Sitka Jews thing. I hope it works out for you!

  9. Even more Chabon to dig into! This sounds fabulous, and I’m awfully fond of manly “WE DON’T TALK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS BUT WE FEEL THEM FEELINGLY” friendships at the moment.

    • Jenny says:

      Dude, this comment made me laugh out loud. I love this, too. Have you read the Aubrey-Maturin books? It feels like an investment (20 books!) but they are so wonderful it’s actually an investment in yourself!

  10. petekarnas says:

    Great review. The Adventures of K and K is the only Chabon I’ve read and I’m not certain why that is because I thought it was such a wonderful book. This looks great as well – I’ll have to look for a copy!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Kavalier and Clay is just outstanding. This one is a lot of fun, but it’s not on the same level. Still, it doesn’t have to be to be a good read!

  11. Iris says:

    I have not read anything by Chabon yet. So you think I could start as easily with this one as with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? Maybe I will, since this is a shorter read, and that can be a better introduction to an author you know nothing about, at times.

    • Jenny says:

      This book is nothing like Kavalier and Clay, but it will give you a taste of Chabon’s writing, and maybe get you hooked! And I agree that a short, fun read can be a great intro.

  12. Kerry says:

    I love Chabon, and Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite books, but I could not for the life of me get into this one. Maybe it warrants revisiting?

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I loved this for its sheer entertainment value, partly because I’m a real lover of genre fiction. I really *like* stories about marauding armies and drunken Vikings. So maybe that was part of its charm for me!

  13. How in the world have I never heard of this one? I adore Chabon (but haven’t read Kavalier and Klay yet. For shame.), and this one sounds fun. I’m adding it to my list!

  14. Pingback: Michael Chabon – Gentlemen of the Road « Fyrefly's Book Blog

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