Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Gentleman of the Road" (2007): Michael Chabon, in search of a little adventure

Summer's nearly here, and the reading -- as it should be -- is easy. June 16 may be Bloomsday, but I'll save reading Ulysses for some other season. Meanwhile, trips to the library can provide some entertaining surprises when the early-May temperature is already in the 80s.

Michael Chabon's 2007 novel
Gentlemen of the Road is a fast and dizzying spin through lands far away and long ago. Like other writers who have enjoyed taking their readers to unexpected places, the prolific Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wonder Boys) weaves a spell here that recalls the adventure tales of Rudyard Kipling and the travelogues of 19th-century British wanderers like Sir Richard Burton. Unlike their British predecessors, however, these are certainly no gentlemen of leisure. Amram and Zelikman aren't even British. Chabon's original title -- Jews With Swords -- lays the story more directly on the line than the published novel's genteel title would suggest.

Whether or not the reader is swept up in the story of two Jewish charlatans in the Caucasus mountains of Khazaria circa 950 A.D. is a moot point, since the novel's quick 200 pages leave very little room for second-guessing the writer's intentions. Neither is Chabon interested in a plain, unvarnished tale.
Gentlemen of the Road is told in a baroque writing style that pulls out all the considerable descriptive tricks at Chabon's command:

"Then tossing aside the wine bowls, they faced each other. The watchful mahout caught a flicker in the giant African's eyes that was not torchlight. Once more the ax dragged the African like a charger dragging a dead cavalryman by the heel. The Frank tottered backward, and then as the African heaved past he drove the square toe of his left boot into the African's groin. All the men in the inn-yard squirmed in half-willing sympathy as the African collapsed in silence onto his stomach. The Frank slid his preposterous sword into the African's side and yanked it out again. After thrashing about for a few instants, the African lay still, as his dark -- though not, someone determined, black -- blood muddied the ground."

A reader getting lost in the thicket of Chabon's prose is on his own. Chabon writes with the literary abandon of the pay-by-the-word adventure serials popular in the boys' magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, and with a suspension of belief that equals the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs before that. Its a fun and exhilarating style, a little exhausting -- the tossing of a knife warrants fifty words, if it wants five -- but Chabon knows that Gentlemen of the Road is a tale told quickly. Originally a serial published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the novel jumps from scene to scene is a breathless hurry. Any reader of Neal Stephenson's collected works will marvel at Gentlemen's brevity. No moss gathers here.

Although some readers will likely grouse about the lack of Serious Writing in
Gentlemen of the Road, Chabon isn't out to trick the reader: in an afterward, the writer makes it clear that he is stepping outside his usual story framework of "divorce, death, illness, violence, random and domestic; divorce, bad faith, deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce -- that about covers it."

In short, says the author,
I have gone off in search of a little adventure. The point is made again by the design of the book: it's profusely illustrated, as the publishing trade used to trumpet, with drawings by Gary Gianni, illustrator of the Prince Valiant comic strip.

And a novel that centers on the exploits of two tenth-century Jewish comrades-in-arms is not your typical colonials-in-bush-country, although it does echo the rollicking style of, say, the late George MacDonald Fraser's
Flashman series. If Chabon enjoys this kind of story-telling, he could fashion a second career by picking up where Fraser left off in that lengthy series of escapades, based on the fictional memoirs of Sir Harry Flashman, V.C., K.C.B., K.C.I.E.

One element that makes
Gentlemen a pleasure to read, like Fraser's Flashman books, is that Chabon tells his story without irony or tongue too firmly in cheek. If there's no heavy thinking going on here, it's a relief to read a novel that doesn't keep winking and nudging the reader for approval of its cleverness. Sure, it's doubtful that this ranks with great literature, but it's a fun read and a summer afternoon's entertainment. In that, Chabon -- who shows a remarkable imagination for a good yarn -- joins others like Dumas pere and fils, and Victor Hugo, who knew a thing or two about swashbuckling narratives. That's not bad company at all.

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