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Gentlemen of the Road review

February 9, 2008

10th-century foxes

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure
Michael Chabon
Del Rey, 224 pp., $21.95
REVIEWED BY ELIZABETH WILLSE for the Star-Ledger

Section: Today. Date: 12/23/07. Word Count: 441

My father devoured “Gentlemen of the Road” in one long, spellbound afternoon. I spread the reading over weeks. The novel, Michael Chabon’s latest, also evokes the childhood glee of reading by flashlight, burrowed under the covers.

Chabon spins an excellent tale of honorable thieves, swindles, sword fights and vengeance through the 10th-century kingdom of Khazaria. We first encounter Zelikman, the wiry Jew, and Amram the massive Abyssinian, trading bitter insults, and then sword thrusts, over the destruction of a hat. When it emerges that they are not adversaries, but business partners who have staged the fight to swindle an entire tavern, they are forced to depart in haste. But their fortunes shift again, launching them on a quest to deliver a ransomed and argumentative prince, change their allegiances, raise an army, and participate in the biggest double-cross of all.

There is no such thing as a typical Michael Chabon novel. Those who have read Chabon’s earlier work, such as “Summerland,” “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” or “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” know that Chabon can weave an engrossing tale, seamlessly infusing his story with the stuff of history and legend.

Newcomers will love “Gentlemen of the Road” for the deft way Chabon draws together the stuff of ancient history, the Arabian Nights mythos, and the dime adventure novels of the early 20th century.

The dime novel gets a particular nod. Chapter headings such as “On The Particular Observance of the Fourth Commandment Among Horse Thieves” mark self-contained adventures in Amram and Zelikman’s journey. Gary Gianni’s captioned line drawings depict specific dramatic scenes. However, unlike the typical idea of a dime novel, Chabon allows us to enter our heroes’ interior lives. Their moments of self-doubt, homesickness or compassion make them more complex than the typical adventure hero.

Outside the affectionate bickering of the heroes’ partnership, things can get a little confusing. It can take some concentration to pick up that a bek and a kagan are two kinds of rulers in the land of Atil. Not everyone will know that a mahout is an elephant rider.

Some of the characters are also confusing. A subplot involving Zelikman’s stolen horse adds a character named Hanukah, whose relevance remains largely unexplained. And chapter shifts that describe Amram and Zelikman anonymously, in disguise, can be disorienting. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise well-crafted adventure.

Michael Chabon launches his readers thundering in pursuit of two mismatched adventurers, as they fight, bicker and swindle their way across the Caucasus. It is an engrossing and entertaining must-read. Whether you read it all at once, over a few weeks or by flashlight is up to you.

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