In a corner of my local street-market lies a bric-a-brac stall specialising in vintage books with rowdy titles such as Roving and Fighting and Twice Lost: a story for boys. Michael Chabon's latest novel, Gentlemen of the Road is a match for any of them: it's a rip-roaring ride of a novel firmly fixed in that late-19th century tradition of episodic adventure stories.
First published in serial form in The New York Times, it follows the travails of Zelikman, a skinny Jewish physician, and Amram, a black giant of an Abyssinian, as they course along the silk road around 1000AD. They are "gentlemen of the road", which really means they are anything but. Zelikman admits that he is "an apostate from the faith of my fathers, a renegade, a brigand, a hired blade, a thief". They go from one low-key con to another until they land a troublesome charge: Filaq, the son of the assassinated ruler of Khazaria. A death squad is on his tail and soon, by default, after Zelikman and Amram.
The trio emerge from the shadow of calamity to plan their retribution. They form the Brotherhood of the Elephant – a kind of B-movie take on the Fellowship of the Ring – and lead an army from the foothills of the Caucasus across the land of Arran to Atil on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Here they intend to overthrow Buljan, the self-appointed despot responsible for orphaning Filaq. Along the way, as befits the cliffhanger format of a serialised novel, there are as many twists in the tale as there are in the road.
Chabon has always juggled the old chestnuts of genre fiction with great success: his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was immersed in comic-book lore. With its cast of chancers and rotters, arch chapter headings ("On a Consignment of Flesh") and wonderful illustrations by Gary Gianni, his present endeavour could have sat happily in the pages of The Strand more than a century ago.
However, this is no empty experiment in style. Chabon carefully layers an unforgiving picture of the gritty, grimy, transient life of his hapless hobos. They sleep on carpets that smell of rutting sheep and wake to the "migraine blaze of day". Characterisation is equally well-honed. Both funny and sad, our heroes tumble to life. Amram, "a pit mastiff in the dogfights of Empire", is a comic foil to the melancholy Zelikman, who "was simply born lonely". He wearily declares things such as "I don't save lives. I just prolong their futility." He's a wonderful, laconic coat hanger of a creation.
Of course, as with all great masters of derring do – from Dumas to Conan Doyle – Chabon makes the reader empathise with the good guys by making them as conflicted and screwed up as the villains. Pit them against flying battleaxes, stampeding stallions and sabre-sharp put downs and the result is a first-rate ripping yarn. *
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