Hippie Squared: Chabon Jag Rag

20060915_michael_chabon_2I’m on a Chabon jag. Michael Chabon, of whom I’ve read three in a row, finishing Gentlemen of the Road just last night, a literary swashbuckler whose true title, Chabon says in the Afterword, is “Jews with Swords.

The first two of his I read are closer to traditional, contemporary realistic fiction: Wonder Boys, which is something of a comic journey, with a college professor no doubt descended from Shakespeare’s Falstaff. And Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a coming of age novel whose protagonist has a father in the mob, and that ends with a death scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a thirties gangster movie.

Chabon won a Pulitzer for his third novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about the creation of the early superhero comics beginning in late thirties New York. (Haven’t read that one yet, but it’s probably next on my list.)

chabongentlemenGentlemen of the Road’s got something of Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” and something of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan among others) in its makeup. In fact, one of its two main heroes—the Frankish Jew Zelikman—bears a striking resemblance to Howard’s English Puritan Solomon Kane. Both are tall, thin, long-haired, dressed in black, unfailingly dour and grim but confident and accomplished. Zelikman is blond, Kane black-haired.

Kane famously wears a wide-brimmed black hat. At the beginning of Gentlemen, (illustrated by Gary Gianni, who illustrated the 1998 collection of Solomon Kane stories), Zelikman is deprived of such a hat by his partner Amram as part of a con they run, in an scene that reminded me of Richard Lester’s 70’s Musketeers movies, in its mix of comedy and action. At the end of the novel he gains another wide-brimmed black hat, and in one of the final illustrations becomes nearly the spitting image of Kane.

Gentlemen is also published by Del Rey, the science fiction and fantasy imprint that published the Kane stories as part of a series of scholarly republications of all Howard’s main adventure heroes.

Though Gentlemen bears the closest resemblance among Howard’s works to his exotic semi-historical adventures set in the Orient and Middle East, collected in 2005 by University of Nebraska press in Lord of Samarcand.

What’s great about Chabon is that whatever kind of story he’s telling, he brings the same gusto, high style and intelligence to the project. He brings a sense of adventure and play. He’s never slumming, and he’s never pretentious. Whether he’s delving into the self-dramatization of young people right out of college, or the mid-life crisis of a middle-aged writer/college professor, or freebooters plotting revenge and revolution in 10th century Khazar, he’s out to have a good time.

And he’s even got a philosophy behind it all, which he’s been laying out in short pieces for several years now, many of which have been collected in Maps and Legends, a loose manifesto of sorts. He confesses to being a lover of genre fiction; though he does not apologize for it. “My passion and my ambition as a reader and a writer were forged in the smithy of genre fiction,” he says.

He also says, “What tends to be ignored by serious writers and critics alike is that the genre known (more imprecisely than any other) as ‘literary fiction’ has rules, conventions, and formulas of its own.”

He makes the case for entertainment as a legitimate value in literature. “The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.”

Very much in keeping with his ideas, Chabon seems to making a career of literary genre mash-ups, not just with Gentlemen but with several preceding novels, Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Final Solution, for instance, which are both literary fictions but play with alternate timelines and the mystery, respectively.

I expect I’ll read them all. “The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth, and over a wide spectrum,” Chabon says. Chabon remembers that writing and reading should be fun–but he’s got a deep understanding of that word.

Show me a good time without insulting my intelligence? Hey, I’m game.