Books: Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road

How often do you get an adventure story from a Pulitzer Prize winner? Until Columbia starts handing out Pulitzers for adventure stories, I think Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road might be the only one. As an occasional snob with a soft spot for heroic adventure, I’ve had this book on my “should read” list for ages (it’s been out for seven years). In my previously mentioned effort to read more books, this was a natural candidate for kicking things off.

I feel like you can learn most of what you need to know about this book from the dedication and the afterword. The former is offered to Michael Moorcock, inventor of Elric of Melniboné and chronicler of weird multiple universe stories involving Order, Chaos, and Balance. And the Grail. And roses. Anyway. Michael Moorcock is thoroughly a creature of genre (though he bends that genre into bizarre shapes in his more ambitious work).

The afterword describes Chabon’s working title for the novel: “Jews with Swords.” It works. Obviously, Gentlemen of the Road proved equally apt and far more marketable, but “Jews with Swords” is as succinct a description of the book as one is likely to get. Technically, the Frankish Jew wields a lethally oversized lancet and the Abyssinian Jew wields a bearded axe, but the technicalities are distinct from and less important than the details.

Gentlemen was originally published as a serial, and moves with that genre’s odd balance of speed and caesura. We zip through scenes, jump ahead, and once in a while even go sideways. Chabon finds plenty to leave out. The writing is brisk, but with wonderful curlicues of language and description. Chabon has a fantastic knack for adding detail to trivial characters. There are seldom more than two or three such details, but they work wonderfully to sketch the important lines of the characters. Taken in the composite, the descriptions of these background characters deepen the world without distracting from the plot. (Craft of writing curiosity: Chabon works magic with one-sentence anecdotes. Describing something a character once did can be even more effective than a description of posture or personality.)

The best part is that it all works. Chabon’s juggling history, fatalism, and confidence games played with armies. It still coheres. It’s a good book without being a serious one. (I’m pretty sure Gene Wolfe has written more serious “genre” stories in his sleep.) There are fun words (gonfalon!) and clever turns of phrase. The heroes balance heroism and roguery in true pulp fashion. There is an ugly horse. And elephants. Religion wanders in and out of the story without ever becoming the point of the story. The Jews with swords do not actually solve many problems with them, relying instead on their wits, black humor, and resigned stoicism.

It’s a good book, one I’m glad I finally got around to reading.

Next time: an arbitrary library grab.


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