Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road reads like a classic novel, as if part of a required reading list for an English literature course. The vocabulary alone sent this reader to a dictionary more than once.
The novel opens with a thrown insult followed by a thrown axe, immediately setting the stage for a fight as well as setting the tone of the story and drawing the rough characters we will learn about and follow.
Amram, a huge African whose weapon of choice is the above-mentioned axe, and Zelikman, a Frank physician, make strange bedfellows in this wild adventure story. The unlikely pair find themselves traveling through tenth-century Asia together on a mission to reluctantly save Filaq, a prince of the Khazar empire, and help him reclaim his throne usurped by his uncle.
The characters and their relationships to each other are portrayed in subtle tone but visceral description. Grey-haired Amram has skin that is as “lustrous as the tarnish on a copper kettle and his eyes womanly as a camel’s.” Zelikman, on the other hand, is a “fair-haired scarecrow,” a “thin-shanked fellow” whose hair falls in “two golden curtains on either side of his long face” and has an unhealthy relationship with hats. This Mutt and Jeff work their way through the Caucasus Mountains, pissing off the locals as they go, hurling insults, blades and witticisms along the way.
Whether purposeful or not, this book’s prose is purple. One particularly colorful scene describes a man who is dragged from his hiding place and “slashed open like a gushing sack of wine.” That painted the picture for this reader.
The atmosphere of this story compares to that of The Three Musketeers, Lethal Weapon, and several Hollywood Bible films all at once. And this story is all about guys. It is a long time before any female characters appear on the scene, though when one does, she makes up for the lack of women we don’t see beforehand in a way that surprises and satisfies.
Illustrations by Prince Valiant artist Gary Gianni accompany the story, lending concrete pictures to the characters, if Chabon didn’t paint them strongly enough already. Some people may argue that pictures can take away from the imagination of the reader, but if you can let that go, it doesn’t take away from this well-told story. In fact, it gives it a closer resemblance to the classic novel. One doesn’t see much artwork in novels these days, so it’s a little refreshing.
Chabon’s lengthy sentences and highbrow words do not make for a light read. In addition, the unfamiliar names and places may prevent its accessibility to the average reader, even at just under 200 pages.
Gentlemen of the Road is a literary, albeit action-packed, buddy road trip. While the map on the inside cover provides a little understanding of the geography of the story, perhaps a glossary - of the real and the fictitious - would have been more helpful.