Michael Chabon is a writer with serious literary pretentions, yet his works have a certain pop-culture geekiness to them. Kavalier & Clay is steeped in early comic book history, the The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a hard boiled crime noir set in a counter factual universe. Both novels have their playful side but they are serious at heart. GofTR is the opposite. Whilst it does have some serious elements, this is an entertaining swashbuckling swords and sandals adventure story.
One other common theme throughout Chabon’s writing is his use of language. He is a man not afraid to use twenty words where one would do. He’s also happy to throw in an obscure word or ten. Sometimes he reads like a master prose stylist, with complete command of the English language and at other times he reads like a pretentious twat. The percentage amount of each probably depends on the individual reader. I mostly loved it. Complicated though the language is, it’s filled with wit and mostly a joy to read.
The story is a boy’s own adventure. Sword-fights, swindles and disguises, rogues, armies and pirates all play their part. The cast of characters is strong. The two central players are men of malleable morals, yet despite their better judgement always seem to do the right thing. The book is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, and one of the protagonists could be an incarnation of Moorcock’s eternal champion.
The novel explores some of history’s less travelled backwaters. The Khazar state was a rare thing; a society where different religions lived alongside one another, and even fought in the army together. Though Khazar life was rough and often short, it is unmistakable from Chabon’s treatment of the period, that he considers it superior to the way the world currently tolerates religious differences.
As with many Chabon novels Jewishness is at the heart of Gentlemen of the Road. In an afterward Chabon says his working title was ‘Jews with Swords’, but nobody could take it seriously. They found idea of Jews slinging swords was absurd. In this book it’s Jewish characters are hard dealers of death and inured to fear. Far cry from a stereotypical New York Jew, as portrayed by Hollywood.
Gentlemen of the Road harks back to an earlier age of adventure storytelling. Whilst Chabon occasionally tries the reader with over elaborate vocabulary, it is an entertaining yarn, which at just over two hundred pages never outstays it’s welcome.