The word "swashbuckling" was
invented for this novel. In antique, jewel-toned
words ("bambakion," "buskin, "bodkin") and sentences
as meandering and adventuresome as the plot itself,
Gentlemen of the Road gallops after Amram and
Zelikman, a mismatched pair of fortune-hunters in
tenth-century Khazaria. They are far from your
average adventurers—Amram is an Abyssinian who looks
like a thug, carries a Viking ax named
Mother-Defiler, and behaves like royalty, and
Zelikman is a moody, ascetic German Jew with an
abiding affection only for his horse. Their
small-time swindles take a turn for the
extraordinary when a foundling they've been
conscripted to deliver to distant relatives turns
out to be an orphaned prince bent on revenging his
father's death and restoring his own claim to the
throne. Game for anything, Amram and Zelikman pledge
their services to the dubious cause. As their
nemesis exclaims admiringly, "Gentlemen of the road,
hustling a kingdom!"
You can learn much about the novel by listening to the stately irony of that title phrase. Zelikman defines a gentleman of the road as "an apostate from the faith of my fathers, a renegade, a brigand, a hired blade, a thief," yet he and his comrades address each other in florid turns of phrases with all the gravity of courtiers. They even abide by a code of ethics, distinguishing their brand of nefariousness from the far worse practice of soldiering. Zelikman explains disdainfully, "I want nothing to do with soldiers, armies, chains of command. All the evil in the world derives from the actions of men acting in a mass against other masses of men." Zelikman, who is estranged from his father, and Amram, who travels across the globe in a phantom search for his dead daughter, are mournfully aware of their low station in life. Chabon grants them an articulateness about their exile that sharply contrasts with their dastardly deeds. This, in my opinion, is Chabon's signature contribution to contemporary literature, what distinguishes him from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers: his unwavering affection for and generosity toward his own characters, which leads him to see their integrity even in their moments of greatest frailty.
I was initially skeptical about Gentlemen of the Road because it appeared so swiftly after Chabon's ambitious novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and because it was first serialized in the New York Times Magazine. The book styles itself as a boy's adventure novel, complete with illustrations by Gary Gianni and the coy captions of the genre ("He turned it over and ran his fingers along the runes. I wonder what they say."). Would the story be too slight, too ad hoc, too genre-bound to stand up to his major works? But I should have known better than to doubt. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, without a doubt Chabon's best work to date, proved that his unit of composition is the chapter. In that work, as in Gentlemen of the Road, each one ends with a virtuosic flourish of the pen—a moment of exquisite suspense, a satisfying one-liner, a tiny release of narrative tension. In this way, Chabon is as generous to his readers as he is to his characters. Gentlemen of the Road is undiluted pleasure.
The book's only misstep is its afterword, in which Chabon disingenuously attempts to justify a literary author's decision to write an adventure novel, what he calls "the incongruity of writer and work." Surely Chabon knows he need not apologize for his foray into genre work, because he has already established a reputation as a serious author who turns the dross of popular culture—comics, detective novels—into gold. Gentlemen of the Road is not a major novel. But Chabon clearly had fun writing it, and that is enough to ensure the reader will enjoy gulping it down. With its beguiling prose and exotic setting, it is a first-rate yarn; with the deep humanity of its protagonists, it is a demonstration of a master storyteller investing the world with his own.
This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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