Gentlemen of the Road
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Michael Chabon claims that the working title for this novel was Jews With
Swords. But when he mentioned the name to acquaintances, he found
they tended to laugh. “They saw their uncle Manny,” he noted, “dirk
between his teeth, slacks belted at the armpits, dropping from the
chandelier to knock together the heads of a couple of nefarious
auditors.” Instead his swashbuckling tale, originally serialized in the New
York Times, sees light of day as Gentlemen of the Road.
The new title is a bit of a let-down — it sounds like a manual from my
high school drivers education class. But the book itself does not
disappoint. Chabon takes the basic formulas of old-fashioned adventure
novels, and sprinkles them with the pixie dust of his charming prose and
fervid imagination. The result is a fanciful narrative, well plotted and
If one were looking for a catch-phrase to describe fiction in the new
millennium, one might do worse than announcing the “Return of
Storytelling.” Or perhaps, once could proclaim the “Mixing of Highbrow
and Lowbrow” as the key contemporary trend, or else the “Arrival of
Post-Modern Genre Fiction.” Chabon is at the center of all these
developments, and nowhere more clearly than in Gentlemen of the Road.
He borrows from the most unlikely of sources – how many serious
writers note their similarity to Fritz Leiber in their dust-jacket copy? —
but twists the oldest recipes into surprising new dishes.
It was inevitable that Chabon would tackle an adventure novel. No
contemporary novelist has gotten more mileage from the ups and downs
of male-bonding. In a Chabon book, relationships between the opposite
sexes always seem shaky and ephemeral, while boy buddies build their
friendships on firmer foundations. For a writer with Chabon’s sensibility,
a "Three Musketeers" type of tale must hold extraordinary appeal. In
Gentlemen of the Road, he brings together the gaunt physician Zelikman,
the aging ex-soldier Amram, and mixes them with a host of mercenaries,
wandering merchants, and power-hungry aspirants to a bloody throne.
One can almost hear his heroes shouting out, in tandem: “All for one,
and one for all.”
Chabon follows his protagonists through a series of adventures in a
mythical reconstruction of Asia Minor, circa the year 950. Sometimes they
are con men looking for an easy mark, but just as easily slip into the role
of altruistic heroes out to help an innocent orphan or topple a tyrant.
The story lines will be familiar territory to anyone who has ever watch a
Sabu movie or kippled with Kipling, but Chabon always finds an
interesting twist or peculiar detail to raise his tale to a higher level.
Above all, the author had a lot of fun with this project, and his
enthusiasm is evident at almost every turn.
Gentlemen of the Road will not make anyone forget Chabon’s major
works – Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and
his recent The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. This is a modest work, only a
little longer than a novella. But Chabon continues to charm with the
scope of his imagination, the sparkle of his writing, and his willingness to
sabotage the pieties of serious fiction. And needless to say, after you
read it, you will never look at Uncle Manny the same again.
This review originally appeared on Blogcritics