Book Review: ‘Gentlemen of the Road’
Vail, CO, Colorado
Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon’s latest literary feat, “Gentlemen of the Road,” travels to the multicultural land of the Khazar Empire to follow the exploits of two Jewish swords-for-hire.
Set in the early Middle Ages, this is a tale of saber-wielding wanderers who are bent on doing what is right, whether that was the initial plan. The novella trails two unlikely friends ” Zelikman, the ghostly scarecrow from Europe; and Amram, the gargantuan black-as-night Jew from Abyssinia ” as they wind their way farther and farther eastward into Muslim territory.
The story then delves, though somewhat vaguely, into religious differences. As wars are waged and battles are fought, our two gentlemen of the road continue to survive, one way or another.
There are layers upon layers to Chabon’s novella. The first set of layers is, of course, the characters.
Colorful, mischievous and full of surprises: Hanukkah, a semi-portly, clumsy fellow who pines for his forced-into-prostitution gal Sarah; Cunegunde, a loving elephant who has never forgotten his friend, Zelikman; and Filaq, a feisty young man with a penchant for escaping.
The second layer is the religious tension that seems to be mounting between Jews and Muslims. It brings to mind current world affairs and reminds us that religious differences have been prevalent throughout history. It is these differences, along with politics, that provides us with the adventure.
Zelikman and Amram’s adventures (or misadventures) evoke the old westerns of American cinema with a sort of shoot-’em-up-while-riding-a-horse bravado. Chabon offers only a smattering of background on how the two main characters, Zelikman and Amram, met. But through his character development you become increasingly aware of the bond between them.
If you are a lover of history, you will appreciate this short novel. Chabon’s commitment to using words and phrases from the period adds veracity to his storytelling. Words like “mahout,” “bekun,” and “naphtha” are constantly sprinkled throughout. Geographical references to cities and countries gone by are not lost on the reader because there are old-world maps on the inside of the book cover.
Speaking of visual references, there are crisply-drawn illustrations throughout the book. Gary Gianni’s black ink sketches bring to mind German woodcut images. They add a punch to the already zesty plot and marry well with Chabon’s descriptive writing. However, the author’s style might be difficult for some to chew.
Chabon’s near stream-of-conscious sentences are reminiscent of William Faulkner and the reader may find himself retracing his steps to the beginning of sentences. The language and sentence structure hearken back to the czars, so to speak, of classic British Literature. The reader may have to refer to a dictionary to clarify some words ” most of which Chabon probably borrowed from the Middle Ages. However, this high level of writing merely adds to the complexity of the work itself.
Although the novel is a mere 196 pages, the complex layers within make up for its brevity. Though far shorter, and intended for a young audience, Chabon’s style is similarly strong to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay,” and this year’s crime noir “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”
In fact, “Gentlemen of the Road” and its layers are so compelling one almost wonders if Chabon will write a sequel. Readers may be left wanting more.
Amy Allen works at The Bookworm.