Michael Chabon’s new novel, Gentlemen of the Road, was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, echoing the lurid and massively popular penny dreadfuls from the turn of the (twentieth) century. Its working title was originally ‘Jews with Swords’ which evokes all sorts of strange images, while the story itself sees a duo of Jewish ‘gentlemen of the road’ – that is, itinerant rogues – embark on an epic adventure in the Kingdom of Khazaria in the 10th century. They’re conmen, thieves, hard-bitten and cynical – but of course, like all true adventurers, they’ve got hearts of gold and are immensely loyal to each other.
I’m a big fan of Chabon’s – I enjoyed reading Summerland, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and I tend to buy his books as soon as they come out. I was a little disappointed with Gentlemen of the Road though. Partly this was because of its serial format, which doesn’t work well when stitched into a novel, and partly its because the adventure, for all its wit and colour, was not all that exciting. It felt oddly cramped, at odds with Chabon’s love of run-on sentences and numerous asides, which often obscured the action.
The world itself, 10th century Eastern Europe/Middle East, with Jews pressed up against Muslim Caliphates, Christian Franks and vicious white raiders from the north, pressed home the point that things were really quite interesting back then, and there are ways for different religions to get along – to an extent. So if you liked Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, you’ll like Gentlemen of the Road.
I had high expectations of this novel – too high, perhaps – but despite my disappointment I don’t regret buying it. It’s an entertaining read, one that’s best consumed at a measured pace, as opposed to my frantic reading. I picked it up on discount for £5 in a handsome hardback format, but I would suggest reading it online for free instead. You can do this without any guilt whatsoever, because it’s still on the New York Times Magazine website. Enjoy!
- Chapter 1: On Discord Arising From Excessive Love of a Hat
- Chapter 2: On Payment — and Trouble, Its Inevitable Gratuity
- Chapter 3: On the Burdens and Cruelties of the Road
- Chapter 4: On the Substitution of One Angel, and One Cause for Another
- Chapter 5: On the Observance of the Fourth Commandment Among Horse Thieves
- Chapter 6: On Some Peculiarities in the Trading Practices of Northmen
- Chapter 7: On the Seizing of a Low Moment
- Chapter 8: On a Niceness of Moral Discernment Uncommon Among Gentlemen of the Road
- Chapter 9: On anxieties arising from the impermissibility, however unreasonable, of an elephant’s rounding out a prayer quorum.
- Chapter 10: On the Belated Repayment of the Gift of a Pear
- Chapter 11: On the Unforeseen and Annoying Resemblance of a Bek’s Life to an Ill-Played Game of Shatranj
- Chapter 12: On a Consignment of Flesh
- Chapter 13: On Swimming to the Library at the Heart of the World
- Chapter 14: On the Melancholy Duty of Soldiers to Contend With the Messes Left by Kings
- Chapter 15: On Following the Road to One’s Destiny, With the Usual Intrusions of Violence and Grace