Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure
by Michael Chabon
Review by Judy Newton
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345501745
Date: 30 October 2007 List Price $21.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Ever since Michael Chabon gave up writing mainstream novels, he and his readers have had a terrific time exploring and exploding the clichés of one niche market after another. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize while being an excellent read about the Golden Age of American comics. His last, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, combined a noir-ish, hardboiled crime novel with an alternate-reality fantasy: that the postwar Jewish homeland was established in Alaska instead of Israel.
Gentlemen of the Road carries Chabon's theme of Jewish main characters to an unlikely, and, to some, unbelievable extreme. In an afterword, he reveals how he intended to title the novel Jews with Swords but was met with near-universal, disbelieving laughter. The milieu is the fabled but possibly historical kingdom of Khazaria, in which Jews behaved just like their neighbors, most pertinently resulting in a palace coup that produced a lone heir and a wrong needing to be righted by two adventurers. They accomplish this with the help of sundry prostitutes, merchants, pirates, mutineers, and an elephant or two.
This ill-assorted pair consists of the classic brains-and-brawn duo of a thin, black-clad white Jewish Frank from Regensburg (where he was trained as a physician) and a giant African toting a battle-axe. They derive from a long line of road buddies from Fafhrd and the Mouser through Xena and Gabrielle. They live by their wits, not too proud to fake death if it pays for a room and meal, as they ride horseback through the bawdy, bloody world of Asia Minor circa 950 A.D.
The plot doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. It relies heavily on coincidence and serendipity, but then plot isn't really the main point of a novel (and a short one, at less than 200 pages) like this one. Like those of Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The White Company), and Talbot Mundy, the collection of incident and evocation of place must overcome the implausibility; also, prose that bears a fair semblance to that with which those books are laden is sometimes an impediment to progress.
Still, the adventures come fast enough, and the pages are paved with erudite in-jokes that make you feel superior when you recognize them ("…the infusion of dried camellia leaves…" why, he's drinking tea!) The ending is satisfying while leaving room for a sequel. One hopes it will be a longer book that allows for more character development of the two Gentlemen of the Title.