Sunday, January 27, 2008

In Review Of: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon and Gary Gianni

I found myself explaining to my 7 year old daughter, after watching Pirates of the Caribean again, that there was a time that movies like this, adventure movies with animated corpses, ghost ships and pirate curses, didn’t get Johnny Depp and GeoffreyRush, they got Harry Hamlin. We, lovers of comics be they high superhero adventure, or low brow funny animal, live in a time when our preferred mode of entertainment has become worldwide currency on the movie screen, in the book world, in DVDs and video games.

And now we have exhibit A, Gentlemen of the Road, that rare bird, a serialized pulp novel written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, illustrated in classic style by Gary Gianni. Jews With Swords is what Michael originally wanted to name the book, and he’s not far off, however offputting that would have been on the spine. The book is lean, sparse, so devoid of literary fat that it feels as if Chabon has been on the Pritkin Diet for the entire writing of it. The writing feels as if it has been edited to the level that not even a single extraneous word has made it onto the page. There are no florid descriptions of either character or place, just inventive and incisive writing that while circling its prey, whether person or thing, makes sharp, exacting cuts into the heart of the matter like a surgeon. It is not, however, lacking meat for all that. Our main characters, Amram and Zelikman, by the end of the book, are fully fleshed out, real people that overcome their pulp origins with aplomb.

And it is Robert E. Howard and the cast from the old Fiction mags that should be looking at Chabon as their illegitimate son, except that he’s not getting paid by the word, so when Filaq and Amram gather an army together to regain Filaq’s throne, we don’t need another 10,000 words of digression on the soldiers and what their names are and how they march. In true story compression style, our mind’s eye pans over the assembled hordes and returns quickly to the principles: we have a tale to tell, and we’re not getting sidetracked here.

The Jews with Swords comment comes from a final chapter in the book, post adventure, that is part apology, part mission statement, mostly manifesto by the writer himself, and I found it fascinating. While other writers might have taken Gentlemen of the Road as slumming, instead Chabon makes his point: I love this stuff and I love that I can write the sort of stories that I love to read. There are patently overt Jewish references, never oblique in the book, starting with the name of the character Hannukah, and continuing further into the political situation where the northern Jews of the country are spare the attacks from the north, yet the Muslims from the south are not. It is valid socio-political stage setting that Howard could never have engaged in, and yet takes nothing away from the story. Zelikman is the classic Woody Allen Jew (“Even the non-observent Jew knows exactly what it is that he doesn’t believe in.”) in places, and yet is so much more as a character that it takes much of the story for us to fully get him.

Despite my love of Cavilier and Clay, this book slipped entirely beneath my notice on its release, until it has given to me by my loving wife as a present. It has been a wonderful little read, an excellent addition to my bookshelf. Hail Zelikman and Amram.

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