Since he left the smoky environs of Pittsburg behind, transplanted Berkeley author Michael Chabon has evolved into quite a chameleon—trying out genres in the same way the rest of us might try on hats. His last major novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was all about the fedora. With Gentlemen of the Road, Chabon was looking for something a little more … exotic.
With a scant page count of 200-and-change, Gentlemen is no more than a palate cleanser by Chabonian standards. Its brevity does give the book a momentum that carries its relatively thin conceit forward, whereas a heavier tome may have collapsed under its own weight. Chabon’s inspiration for the story was outlined in his working title for the book: Jews with Swords.
With Gentlemen, Chabon shoots for an adventure in the old-school style of Robert Lewis Stevenson or Burroughs (Edgar Rice, that is—decidedly not William S. or Augusten). The wonderfully rendered illustrations by Prince Valiant artist Gary Gianni help make that classic connection. His depiction of the gaunt, chapeau-obsessed Zelikman with his sword-sized surgical tool (since Jews, by Frankish law, weren’t allowed to bear arms in 950), and his partner in crime—the massive Abyssinian Amram and his ever-present Viking battle axe—really took me back to the hours I spent lost in vintage editions of Treasure Island and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that my grandmother had stashed in her basement.
My only complaint with Gentlemen is that Chabon seems to writing by-the-numbers at times. Whereas I have often been flat-out amazed by his imaginative plot twists, this project seems satisfied to inhabit an exotic landscape and then defer to the dictates of genre. Unless, and I don’t think this was hinted at, the spiritual leader of the Khazars foresaw the entire chain of events—from the fall of the original leader, or bek, onward—and orchestrated them to ensure … well, you’ll just have to read it yourself.
All in all, an enjoyable summer romp, and it helps whet the appetite for whatever Chabon has next up his sleeve. Jews in Space? Astronauts do have cool hats.