Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Deliberate Tale of Adventure

Gentlemen of the Road is different from any other Michael Chabon book that I've read. It's quite short, it's historical, and it's a pure adventure story. In it, two unlikely companions get saddled with an annoying young prince and must return him to his homeland. They go from being charming rogues to stepping up and helping with matters of power and governance. Along the way they get into and out of scrapes and experience plot twists. It couldn't be more different from the contemporary angst of Wonder Boys, the near-past character drama of The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or the alternate history musings of The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Give Chabon props for not being repetitive! Unfortunately, however much I've loved Chabon's other writing, Gentleman failed to impress.

There were a few things that I was hoping for from this story, based on Chabon's demonstrated talents, that I didn't get. For a short, almost pulp adventure story, I was hoping for something a bit closer to a page-turning romp. However, the pacing was slower and more deliberate than I'd have liked to see. Several scenes seem to over-stay their welcome compared to what you'd get in a rip-roaring adventure, and it seemed to take too long to get everyone from A to B. The advantage of that decision would come if it gave Chabon more time to show off his clever, sparkling prose and his unique way with similes. However, that snap was also lacking: I felt that the prose in this book was actually duller than that of any of the other books of his that I've read. Very few memorable lines or passages stand out to me. If I were more conspiracy-minded I would think that he'd deliberately dumbed things down because he felt that adventure tales have to be pitched to a lower grade level. Given all that, the fact that the characters never seemed to gain their third dimension left me entirely underwhelmed by the enterprise.

While the whole set-up is a fascinating one (being, as Chabon has put it, a basically historically realistic tale of "Jews with swords"), the fact that none of Chabon's strengths came to the fore left me disappointed. It's a pleasant enough read that doesn't try the reader's patience, but it's definitely not what I was hoping Chabon would bring to the historical adventure genre. If you’re looking for a rip-roaring adventure of past times, I’d recommend re-reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines instead.

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