Michael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.
Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.
As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.
I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.
Gentlemen of the Road
Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe own a vinyl record shop on the dilapidated Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. It makes a modest income but mainly provides a hang-out for the locals. Now Archy and Nat are worried because ex-NFL pro Gibson Goode is planning on opening a huge media outlet two blocks away that will include a department for vinyl. Archy and Nat thought that city councilman Chan Flowers was blocking the permits, but now he seems to have changed sides. Curiously, he has also begun asking Archy about the whereabouts of his father, whom Archy has not seen in years.
Luther Stallings and Chan Flowers were involved in a crime years ago before Chan became respectable. Luther went on to star in several Blaxploitation karate films in the 70’s, but for years he has been a has-been and a drug addict. Now, Luther is trying to shake down Chan for the money to make a third film in his famous series.
Archy isn’t altogether certain how he feels about losing his business, but he has other problems. His very pregnant wife Gwen has caught him cheating on her, and his 14-year-old son Titus from a previous relationship, ignored until now, has turned up and made friends with Nat’s son Julie. Furthermore, Gwen, who is in partnership with Nat’s wife Aviva as midwives, has lost her temper with a doctor at the only hospital that allows them admitting privileges, and a hearing is scheduled.
I had a harder time getting involved in this novel than I usually do with Chabon because I found Archy’s behavior reprehensible on many fronts. Of course, Chabon sometimes seems to specialize in the adolescent behavior of grown men, but I have less patience with it. However, Chabon gets in some digs at the lifestyles of Gwen and Aviva’s white middleclass clients, which is fun, and skewers the noir genre in general with the subplot involving Chan Flowers and Luther Stallings.
It takes awhile, but Archy is finally forced to consider his relationships with both his wife and his son. The energy of Chabon’s writing kept me engaged well enough, but the ending of this novel seems overly optimistic, given its web of difficulties.
Gentlemen of the Road
The Child in Time
That Old Cape Magic
Gentlemen of the Road is like a boy’s adventure story for adults. Before 1000 AD, Zelikman and Amram are two adventurers travelling in the Caucasus Mountains. They make money by faking fights to be wagered on. Zelikman is a thin, gawky physician from Regensburg who has broken with his family, while Amram is a giant of an ex-soldier looking for his daughter, who was stolen from his village.
An old man hires the men to escort an unwilling young boy named Filaq to his grandfather. The boy’s father was a bek in Khazaria, a legendary Jewish country on the Caspian Sea, when he was murdered by a rival. The boy wants to return to take his revenge, but the rival is having his entire family murdered and enslaved. Filaq eventually persuades Zelikman and Amram to return to Khazaria and help him retake his father’s position.
Chabon originally published this novel as a serial in the New York Times Magazine, ending each chapter with a cliffhanger. He obviously had a great time writing it and it is lots of fun to read, with colorful characters, exotic settings, and deeds of derring-do.