Gen­tle­men of the Road

  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

Once again the unex­pect­ed from Michael Chabon! Orig­i­nal­ly seri­al­ized in the New York Times Mag­a­zine, this is an adven­ture sto­ry filled with hero­ic der­ring-do and lots of swash­buck­ling sword­play but with Chabon’s sig­na­ture humor pok­ing its grin­ning head from every line.

Essen­tial­ly a bud­dy sto­ry, it’s a Jew­ish tale and a dynasty saga set in the Khaz­ar Empire in about the year 950. The char­ac­ters man­age to be both broad car­i­ca­ture and all-too-human at the same time. In true mag­a­zine-ser­i­al style, cliffhang­er sus­pense abounds, keep­ing the read­er as breath­less as the char­ac­ters who leap on and off hors­es, throw unerr­ing spears and wield mighty swords. But it’s not only the sto­ry that makes this expe­ri­ence spe­cial; it’s the phys­i­cal book itself that makes this old-time bib­lio­phile smile. End­pa­pers with maps of the ter­ri­to­ry, black and white illus­tra­tions with a line of text run­ning below, a list of illus­tra­tions fol­low­ing the table of con­tents, the print font, itself, as well as count­less oth­er touch­es are all rem­i­nis­cent of the days when a book looked and smelled and felt like a reflec­tion of his­to­ry. All this some­how mag­i­cal­ly com­bines with the sto­ry and sub­tly draws the read­er into time and place and mood. This is lit­er­a­ture as art! And the author gives us a final gift in the form of a fas­ci­nat­ing after­word in which he shares his thoughts about the book and his per­spec­tives on his­to­ry, adven­ture, and literature.

Per­haps the best part of the book con­sists of the chap­ter titles. Who gen­er­al­ly even notices chap­ter titles? But nev­er, in all my read­ing years, have I encoun­tered such unique ones. They are price­less pieces of mini-lit­er­a­ture all by them­selves. This one’s my favorite: On Anx­i­eties Aris­ing From the Imper­mis­si­bil­i­ty, How­ev­er Unrea­son­able, of an Elephant’s Round­ing Out a Prayer Quo­rum.” I’m not sure that there’s a bet­ter chap­ter title than that in the his­to­ry of printing!

Cre­ative, fun and very, very fun­ny, this book will not dis­ap­point the by now high expec­ta­tions of Chabon readers.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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