Monday, November 26, 2007

Mini-Review: Gentlemen of the Road

I've resolved to do more book reviewing around here, if in smaller snippets.

Gentlemen of the Road
by Michael Chabon
(Del Rey, October 2007)
I spent the holiday weekend with Michael Chabon's brief novel Gentlemen of the Road, and it was the perfect curl-up-in-bad-weather sort of book: bloody and daring adventures in exotic lands are immensely appealing when you are avoiding bad weather and extremely comfortable and cozy yourself. Though I'm one of those few odd souls who has never read the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I've been a fan of Mr. Chabon since he edited the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and asserted that there's no shame and indeed some honor in literary writers working with genre fiction -- that is, with plot and action, as well as realism and character and all that stuff. He's also one of the few authors whose blurbs I trust -- every book he has bothered to endorse has become a favorite of mine (AND he gets David Mitchell, so he can't go wrong.)

As with all of my favorite books, this is one of those that totally absorbs you into the plot during the reading of it, but leaves you with a great deal to ponder afterward. The two heroes of the plot are an African Jew and a Frankish Jew, in the messy period between the Roman Empire and the late Middle Ages, in the messy region between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, in the messy (but classic!) position of being cheerfully self-serving con men who find themselves in the midst of an epic and moral struggle. At stake is Khazaria, a real-life Jewish kingdom that lasted 400 years -- and there are a lot of disguises, swordplay, grand speeches, bittersweet romance, elephants, surprising turns of fortune, blood and fire, colorful bit players, and witty remarks before it's all sorted out.

Much of my after-musing on this book has been about the overlaps and mixing of cultures we think of as separate, and about the great stretches of history before, say, the year 1500 that we almost never think about. Along with spending Thursday morning reorganizing the literature section at the bookstore, reading this irresistible story stoked an appetite for thinking about nationality, ethnicity, history, geography, and how infinitely complex the world is.

The book was serialized in the New York Times magazine all last year, and somehow I missed it -- it seems totally appropriate that it would come together in the same way as a Dickens novel. But I'm glad to have encountered it in book form, because it means I also got Chabon's afterword, which had some great meditations on Jewishness (as usual for him) and about the nature of adventure. Here's my favorite bit:

"Adventures are a logical and reliable result -- and have been since at least the time of Odysseus -- of the fatal act of leaving one's home, or trying to return to it again. All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one's home. As soon as you have crossed your doorstep or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws, and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval (but also the disapproval and repression) of your family and neighbors are not to be had: then you have entered into adventure, a place of sorrow, marvels, and regret. Given a choice, I very much prefer to stay home, where I may safely encounter adventure in the pages of a book, or seek it out, as I have here, at the keyboard, in the friendly wilderness of my computer screen."

The extension of that thought, of course, is that the place to which one adventures can also become home -- for better or worse. As the ALP and I prepare to spend our first Christmas together in New York, away from our families, home and adventure and history have been on my mind. I think I might give this book to a lot of people as a Christmas gift -- everyone should have the chance to leave home so definitively as I did in traveling to Khazaria with the gentlemen of the road.

What about you, dear readers? What have you read lately that has been an adventure?