Gentlemen of the Road: Chabon’s Wonderful Prose is Caught in a Pedestrian Story

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Oh, Michael Chabon, you endlessly polymorphic writer. Deciding to read something Chabon has written is simultaneously signing up for a trip into the unknown. This is the third novel by Chabon that I have read, and it impossible to name another author whose novels are so unbelievably different from one another. The only thing that ties them together is the tremendous prose that exists in all three of them. In Telegraph Avenue Chabon revealed to me that he was the master of the absurd simile, and since then, after reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and now Gentlemen of the Road, I must say that the title I forced upon him is still completely appropriate. His prose is playful, yet dense enough to be rewarding. His vocabulary will have you reaching for the dictionary at points, yet you will still fly through the book due to readability. Chabon is clearly one of the best writer’s working today.

But…

Gentlemen of the Road is disappointing. Chabon is a genre-bender, which is so great when it works (Yiddish Policemen’s Union), but when it doesn’t, the story just lacks. Gentlemen of the Road is a mixture of adventure and historical fiction that examines religion, war, revenge, and friendship. However, the novel has very little going on in it below the surface of the words. There is quite a lot of telling and not showing that takes place, and I found myself annoyed with the book after about 60 pages. I pressed on, the book being so short that putting it down would have been silly. After the first chapter of the novel, I assumed that what would make this novel great were the two main characters, who start in an interesting place with a high level of comradery betwixt the two; however, the characters get no more interesting as the plot develops. Zelikman and Amram, gentlemen of the road, brothers moreso than friends, are in the end completely forgettable.

The problem is that there is almost no interesting development between the two. Suddenly, as the reader, we’re informed randomly of their lives’ previous struggles, the things that have made them who they are at that point, but they seem so forced that I found myself rolling my eyes. In the afterword, Chabon writes extensively about why he has written this adventure novel, something so foreign to everything he has done previously, and the answer ends up being “because I wanted to.” That is fine, but perhaps the need to defend the novel in the afterword reveals that it is possible that even Chabon knows the novel does not seem to hit the stride that he may have wanted it to. He clearly wanted to leave the world of the work he had done previously for a moment, but it would appear that when he attempted to do something totally different, his style just failed to transition in any kind of meaningful way.

What remains in the novel is classic Chabon prose and typical Chabon preparedness. As is typical, the novel is so well researched that it becomes dense with general information at moments. Surprisingly, this is partially what makes the novel not work. Let me describe the novel as this: It is like driving on the interstate, yet hitting stoplights every few miles. The genre mix just does not work well here, as the adventure is gutted by dense writing just as it starts to get going at multiple points. Each chapter starts slow, builds to something, gets mired in details, an event occurs, and then the chapter ends.

I should say, in the interest of fairness to Chabon, that a classic adventure novel is not my favorite type of novel to read. I began to ponder whether or not I liked adventure novels at all in the moments before I fell asleep last night. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind. But what is an adventure novel? Does it need to have swords and bows and arrows? If we broaden the term to include any novel that consists of adventure, then I can say that Stephen King’s The Stand is brilliant and is a top notch adventure novel. However I feel that people would quickly contest of the idea of The Stand being an adventure novel.

Perhaps Gentlemen of the Road is part of a genre I just dislike for some ineffable reason. When I first heard the novel described, I went out and bought it the same day, however, so I feel that this is simply a case of my finding the book lackluster. Michael Chabon continues to be an interesting experience for me, as the highs have been high and the lows have been low.

Gentlemen of the Road ended up just not feeling clunky, like it couldn’t decide what type of book it was trying to be. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I just did not enjoy this novel.

Recommended to: Those who enjoy an adventure novel set in 1st Century Middle East.

Avoid as if it were winning a basketball game and you are the Philadelphia 76ers: Most people. Chabon has written better books in his life.

Now, where in the world have I been for a month? The short answer is moving. All my books were boxed up and now they’re out again. Reviews should start being posted consistently once again. Thanks a bunch to all of you who read this blog.

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