This is my first foray into Michael Chabon’s work. Dan read the Pulitzer winning Kavalier and Clay earlier this year, and I couldn’t bring myself to read an epic novel about comic books. I do have limits, you know.
So, when my book group decided to read one of his more recent books, I was anxious to figure out what all the hype is about. I mean, Chabon keeps popping up everywhere, and he’s writing some interesting sounding titles, often including references to Judaism. So, it was only a matter of time before we crossed paths again.
Gentlemen of the Road struggles against any simple summary or definition. Chabon is working within and against many literary forms, to create his own unique artistic endeavor. For that, you have to admire him.
The novel most resembles the pulp fiction of yesteryear. I’ve also heard it compared to the Alan Quartermain style fiction like the story of King Solomon’s Mines. My first impression was that it was something out of the Apocrypha, maybe I or II Maccabees, complete with a bounty hunter named Hanukkah.
In the afterward, Chabon explains that he considered calling the book “Jews with Swords.” But these Jews aren’t in Israel. They’re wandering along the Silk Road, somewhere near the Caspian Sea. The two main characters are a tall African, wielding a battle axe, named Amram, and a blond Frank named Zelikman. Both Jewish men live off their wits and their swords as they travel along the road. Shortly after the start of the story, we’re introduced to a young Khazar prince, Filiq, who is on the run because his throne has been taken over. Zelikman and Amram become the custodians of the disobedient Flilq and journey with him to collect the reward for his safe return to his family. And of course, there are lots of battles along the way.
I admit, the plot is great. Lots of epic elements. You have some great battles, two men who live by their swords called to something greater, and a chance to see some Jews kicking butt.
But here’s the problem: The language is insufferable. Partly, I think Chabon is trying to write in a style that reflects the time period, about 1000 years ago. But partly, I think it’s sheer pretentiousness and pomposity. He’s laced the book with far too many examples of his bountiful vocabulary, so much that it starts to feel like he’s showing off. And while I’m all for poetic and descriptive language, his text feels crowded because of the sheer volume of metaphorical allusions. Chabon seems a little too amorous of his own descriptive powers. And boy does it get annoying. A good editor would ask him to eat some humble pie and trim back the ego on the page.
So if you’re extremely tolerant of overly inflated egos, read this book. Its plot is great. But this is a case where I’m hoping it gets made into a movie because it’s pretty hard to stomach on the page.