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◌  “Gentlemen of the Road”

19 February 2009

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, ISBN 978-0-345-50850-8.

Maybe I’m just sick and cranky, but the most charitable reading I can give this is that it shouldn’t be a book. It was first published as a serial, and each chapter is a charming vignette, but collected they are a story that never arrives. It’s like 40,000 words of prolog.

That could almost work. Many swashbucklers (especially series) have no particular arc but prosper by vividness. Mostly, I prefer good prose to good plot. Some of my favorite fiction is well-crafted genre fiction – Rex Stout’s Wolfe stories, Keith Laumer’s Retief, Wodehouse, and so on. It’s formulaic and it doesn’t interrogate the reader’s understanding of human nature, but it’s immersive and memorable. So it’s not that I’m confused that this is an action novel and not serious (um, you guys, seriously) literature. It’s that if it’s an action novel, where’s the action? The juice of the story seems to have been left out for lack of space. A lot of people get stabbed, but dramatic doings are more mentioned than described.

It’s some great mentioning, to be sure. The book is full of graceful two-line descriptions. The problem is that they are the only descriptions. They’re sketches which would be delightful if they were the fill work in a world with a few detailed portraits, but by themselves they make the world seem empty. I have just read a book with elephants, armies of peasants and mercenaries, Jews with swords (Chabon’s admirable phrase), medieval doctoring, brothels, taverns, palaces, Vikings, and horse thievery on the steppes, but I can’t picture most of it. It’s disappointing.

The more I think about its outline, the more I regret that it didn’t work. The background, Khazaria c. 960 CE, is a wonderful place for a story – full of landscapes, cultures, and events more or less ignored in English-language fiction, but involving the Silk Road and the Radhanites, medieval contact and conversion among the Abrahamic religions, the various migrations of the Pontic-Caspian steppes, the Kievan Rus′ on the Volga, economics among nomads and traders and raiders and cities, the Byzantines, squabbles over Crimea, and other intriguing things that I feel guilty for not knowing more about. It was a crossroads like unluckier fantasy authors get unrealistic to invent, but it always seems to be just offscreen in Gentlemen of the Road.

This is the first Chabon I’ve read. I’d been avoiding The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, assuming from its title and popularity that it was a postmodern inquiry into Jewish identity in America (I get drowsy just typing that), but on learning that it’s set in Sitka in an alternate past, of course I was determined to read it. I still am, because the things that make Gentlemen of the Road a dud are mostly explained by its being a book instead of the comic strip, movie, or portmanteau collection of short stories that it seems to want to be.