Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gentlemen of the Road -- Michael Chabon

I guess I just don't get Michael Chabon's short novels.  I didn't think much of The Final Solution, and I don't think much of Gentlemen of the Road, either.  I keep hoping Chabon's going to write something again that's as magical for me as Wonder Boys or Kavalier and Klay, but so far he hasn't done it.

Gentlemen of the Road is a pastiche of Moorcock, Leiber, Howard, and others.  The setting is the Silk Road in time of the Khazar Empire (you could look it up).  Amram, a huge African, and Zelikman, a Jew, are the gentlemen of the title, adventurers living by their wits, getting into fights, you know the drill.  They find themselves saddled with Filaq, heir to a throne, but delivering Filaq turns out to be a lot of trouble.  So you get your battles, your captures, your escapes, your re-captures, your re-escapes, etc.  

In other words, it's the kind of thing I like to read now and then.  So what's my problem?  It's the prose and the message.  Chabon wants to be literary, he wants to write a propulsive adventure, and he wants to be a bit jokey, too.  It doesn't work for me.  If Robert E. Howard, say, had written this tale, you can bet it would have moved twice as fast.  And Howard, even though he was getting paid by the word, would have done it in half the space.  He'd have clarified the plot, too, I'll bet.  You'd be better off reading Howard's "Tower of the Elephant" or some other adventure than this.  Well, maybe you wouldn't, but I would.

6 comments:

Scott Parker said...

The two long novels you mentioned are wonderful. They show Chabon's power as a prose stylist in the typical coming-of-age story. With later novels (i.e., all those after Kavalier and Clay), Chabon wants to promote plot as something just as important as fancy words. And, yet, he still *writes* like the traditional snobby literary writer. Sometimes it works (Yiddish Policeman's Union) but too often, Chabon can't seem to divorce himself fully from that literary tradition. He still loves words and how they flow together. And he's fantastic at it. He has yet to write the fast-paced pulp he wants to write. I've come to the conclusion that Chabon's books will all be leisurely-paced no matter if the hero is a detective or Silk Road gentlemen. With that mindset, I've enjoyed most Chabon works. I just have my preconceived idea of what I'm going to get...and, so far, Chabon hasn't disappointed. For a really good SF tale with a good take on time travel but also in the same time as Chabon's book, try Ted Chiang's THE MERCHANT AND THE ALCHEMIST'S GATE. You can find the audio at starshipsofa.com.

Bill Crider said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Scott. For me, even SUMMERLAND didn't quite work. I liked YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION, though.

James Reasoner said...

My biggest problem with GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD is that nearly all the action takes place off-screen, as if Chabon was afraid to write a good old hack-and-slash swordfight.

Howard said...

I liked it well enough, I think. I thought it was much better than his Sherlock Holmes novel.

Still, it didn't more like a Howard story.

Lee Goldberg said...

I loved YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION... haven't read anything else by him yet, though I own signed copies of WONDER BOYS and KAVALIER & CLAY.

Doc Quatermass said...

Other than that how did you like it? :-)