Misadventures and bromantic conclusions: Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road

The Village Voice book review for Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road (Del Ray 2007) wasn't so gentle. In fact, reading Alexander Nazaryan's review left me wondering if we had read the same book. According to Nazaryan, Chabon's "heavy-handed Hebrew pride" leads to a horrible case of logorrhea. Drawing connections between the book and Victorian literature, the critique states, "It's not unfair to wonder if Chabon, like his Victorian predecessors, was being paid by the word."

Unlike Nazarayan, I read Gentlemen of the Road knowing that I was in it for the fun, the play, and sensed the author's experiment with history. In the afterward of the novel, Chabon explains that the original title for the book was, Jews with Swords. "I guess it seemed clear I meant the title as a joke," Chabon writes, and notes there is, despite history, a cultural inability to equate a Jewish identity with a fierce, swashbuckling sort of image. People just can't see a Jewish hero swordsman.  They see ...

 ...rather, an unprepossessing little guy, with spectacles and a beard, brandishing a sabre; the pirate Motel Kamzoil. They pictured Woody Allen backing toward the nearest exit behind a barrage of wisecracks and a wavering rapier. They saw their uncle Manny, dirk between his teeth, slacks belted at the armpits, dropping from the chandelier to knock together the heads of a couple of nefarious auditors (198).

Having read Gideon Defoe's The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists: A Novel (Pantheon 2004) earlier this summer, Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road seemed to me another example of mixed genre for the sake of fun, play, and a general good time. Paired with artist Gary Gianni, Chabon creates a story with illustrations not unlike the books young adults read before the paranormal forces of J.K. Rowling and Stephany Meyer took over the young adult literature scene. Though Nazaryan asserts a Victorian connection, I think anyone who read anything printed in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s will recognize the graphic format.  The only romantic notions in Chabon's book rest with adventure and misadventure, and a historical sense of Jewish "bromance." And though there are rather adult themes riding the plot's undercurrent, the book itself is not bawdy, cheap, or heavy-handed.

Instead, it's just great way to spend an afternoon, picturing and re-imagining history and Jewish identity. This is all Chabon intended. He is very quick to note that he, as a writer, just wanted to have a good time. In the world of literature, especially once one has earned a seat within its hallowed halls of respectable fiction, deviating from the holy act of writing for critical acclaim is a good deed that never goes unpunished.

The very first chapter, "On Discord Arising from the Excessive Love of a Hat," it's clear that the reader is in for some serious and not-so-serious play. And Chabon delivers that with both wit and charm. If you're looking for a book rich in iconography, symbolism, complex plot, and opaque characters; if you're wanting a Hemingway sort of experience with short sentences, this novel is not for you. But if you want to spend an afternoon reading with childish delight, perhaps while drinking a cold beer, this read will go great with a hoppy IPA or one of those honeyed pipes Chabon's character, the scarecrow, loves so much.