awkwardly

Saturday

Gentlemen of the Road

Gentlemen of the Road is now my favorite book by Michael Chabon and I'm not sure why. Except for a lot of historical details that I still need to look up (like the game of shatranj and where exactly Abyssinia was and Radanites and Khazars, et cetera), it seems like a breezy, pulpy story, fun and quick to read without requiring a lot of heavy thought.

Go read his Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands for Chabon's essays defending this kind of thing, stories with genre and plot, or at least stories that don't fall into the genre of "literary", which are incorrectly portrayed as neutral or genre-free. (Can you tell I'm convinced?)

Those historical details aren't obstacles to a good story, or something to complain about. They're the kind of names you might gloss over in an explicitly fantastical or sci-fi story because you'd know they were made up, but here they appear to be historically accurate.

I haven't read a lot of Robert E. Howard, but the locations of Gentlemen put me in mind of the Lost Valley of Iskander stories. It's dedicated to Michael Moorcock, which explains the thin, brooding, depressive, pale, straw-haired member of the heroic duo. Boilerplate on the back cover of the large print edition compares it to The Arabian Nights and Dumas. When he's not skewering bad guys, that pale "scarecrow" Zelikman is a doctor, sort of a medecin sans frontiers willing to sew up anyone. I'm not sure if Chabon intended the comparison, but that put me in mind of Sabatini's Captain Blood, a.k.a. Doctor Peter Blood, who starts as a surgeon and gets dragged into slavery and piracy because he performed surgery on a rebel. Zelikman's edgeless rapier is named "Lancet", and I would hate to leave out Amram or his rune-covered axe whose name translates roughly as "Defiler of Your Mother." Who knew there were Jews in Africa that long ago? Not me. Okay, I mean it's just not widely discussed. I hear there were a lot of Chinese settlers in Mexico too. It's just surprising if you are victim of the stereotype that Europeans or WASPs are the only people who ever moved around in big numbers. Sorry. Now I know, and knowing is some portion of the battle.

If I had read more than a chapter or two of Swords And Deviltry, I could say more confidently that Gentlemen reminds me of Fahfrd and Gray Mouser, but I can't remember if they banter quite as much or as well as Zelikman and Amram.

Chabon name-checks Conan and D'Artagnan in the Afterword of Gentlemen of the Road, and his working title was actually Jews with Swords. Draw a Venn diagram with all of the above types of picaresque adventure stories overlapping somewhat and Gentlemen would be somewhere in the sweet spot.

The first scene is about our heroes pulling a scam. Although they show off their fighting skills, they con their way out of other tight spots throughout the book. And the whole story is resolved with a massive con in the end. Which goes to show that even if the "Road" part of their job title is accurate, the euphemism "Gentlemen" is a stretch, so misleading that it almost qualifies as a lie. They have their own ideas about what constitutes proper behavior, but then everyone does, so who's to say they're not really gentlemen.

I'd recommend Gentlemen of the Road to anyone who likes playing thieves or rogues in D&D, or as a model for anyone who wants to understand them better. I can't put my finger on exactly why I love it, but after finishing this novel yesterday, I yearn for Chabon to write sequels, and I'm almost ready to write Gentlemen fan-fiction myself. (He has essays in favor of fan-fic too in Maps and Legends. See also Jonathan Lethem's essay The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism in defense of fanfiction and in defense of plagiarism, sort of, or at least pointing out that some of the greatest arts and literature we can think of borrowed heavily from earlier works.)

And I almost forgot, here are some great lines from Gentlemen of the Road:

"Zelikman heard breathing behind him and turned to find the stripling, behind a rain jar, face buried in his hands, weeping. Zelikman was alien to feelings of sympathy with young men in tears, having waked one morning, around the time of his fifteenth birthday, to find that by a mysterious process perhaps linked to his studies of human ailments and frailties as much as to the rape and murder of his mother and sister, his heart had turned to stone."

Thoughts attributed to a particularly greedy trader: ". . . His ancestral memory of the decline of the great age of trade fleets and caravans [reached] back, like that of all Radanites, to the fall of Rome and the rise of those warring stepchildren of Judaism, the followers of Islam and Christianity, who in violation of God's desire and teaching and above all his good sense would rather kill than haggle."

"She had always found a paradox in the crime of blasphemy, for it seemed to her that any God who could be discountenanced by the words of human beings was by definition not worthy of reverence . . . ."

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