Two 'Gentlemen of the Road'
Plot lines twist, characters hoist swords, and a grand time is had by all in Michael Chabon's new novel
It's easy to picture this year's surprise bestseller "The Dangerous Book for Boys" on Michael Chabon's bookshelf – perhaps dog-eared at the page that tells you how to make your own bow and arrow, or five Latin verbs everyone should know.
In recent years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has detoured from emotionally rich short stories and novels such as "Wonder Boys" to carve out a specialty in topics dear to boyish souls – from magic and comic books in "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," to baseball and Bigfoot in his Young Adult novel "Summerland," to detectives in this year's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and "The Final Solution," starring an elderly Sherlock Holmes. One can only assume that sci-fi is next.
First up, though, is a swashbuckling tale of derring-do, a la Alexandre Dumas or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Gentlemen of the Road even looks like a 19th-century boy's adventure story, thanks to line drawings bristling with weaponry, courtesy of illustrator Gary Gianni.
At this point, to get his coolness quotient any higher, Chabon would have to team up with Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore – or maybe direct an episode of "Heroes."
The "gentlemen" in question are an unlikely duo who share a religion, an inability to settle down, and a penchant for understated banter. Amram is a giant Abyssinian who wields a Viking ax as "easily as a sailor handling a blasphemy." Zelikman is a pale "scarecrow" who was trained as a physician, and has a weakness for fancy headgear.
The two traveling companions find themselves in the Caucasus, making a living selling their swords and gulling other travelers. There they become saddled with a youth who claims to be the only prince of Khazar ("the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea") to survive a coup. (In an afterword, Chabon says the novel's true title is "Jews With Swords.")
Filaq, who has an impressive facility with insults, is determined to avenge his family, despite a total lack of an army with which to do so. Unable to let Filaq go to perdition on his own terms, Amram and Zelikman employ their skill and cunning to help the "beardless stripling" overthrow the usurper.
Chabon has a wonderful time with the conventions of the genre, titling chapters "On the Observance of the Fourth Commandment Among Horse Thieves" and "On Discord Arising From the Excessive Love of a Hat," and throwing in 10-cent words such as "contumelious" and "senescence."
The plot is sufficiently twisty (including a staple of the genre that I can't give away here), and Amram and Zelikman manage to say things like "I don't save lives. I just prolong their futility," without sounding as if they've fallen into a buddy cop movie.
On the down side, readers have to put up with a henchman named Hanukkah and more repetitions of the word "caravansary" than anywhere outside a Scripps Howard spelling bee. These are small annoyances, and genre fans will have a hoot.
But "Gentlemen of the Road" is not a deeply felt work. Like "The Final Solution," it's an expertly rendered pastiche by a writer with a genuine fondness for old-style stories. (The book was originally published in serial form in The New York Times magazine.)
In the afterword, Chabon remarks that in his recent work, "I have gone off in search of a little adventure." It's fun to see a prodigiously talented writer so clearly enjoying himself. But there's a segment of his reading audience (this reader included) who sure wouldn't mind another "Wonder Boys."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.