Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, Bond Street Books.
In the afterword to his latest novel, Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon reveals that he had originally wanted to title the book Jews with Swords, if only to dispel the Woody Allen nebbish stereotype that so many readers, Jewish or non-Jewish, might hold in regard to the book’s subject matter.
His main point is that, whether perceived as Jews with swords or not, the Jewish experience throughout the ages – from exile and displacement through persecution and destruction to a return to Zion with the creation of the modern State of Israel – is a long adventure on par with any complex sword-and-sorcery epic you can imagine.
In that light, Chabon, who is clearly carving out a career on refracting Jewish themes and characters through unlikely and unconventional lights, is the right man to pen a kosher sword-and-sorcery tale that, though influenced by many others, shines in its own unique way.
Beautifully illustrated, Gentlemen of the Road tells the story of two unlikely buddies, circa 950 CE, a Frankish (German) Jewish physician named Zelikman and Amram, an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) Jewish ex-soldier, who survive by working as con artists and, sometimes, as hired thieves and muscle. Their latest con, which pits them in a supposed battle to the death over a perceived insult, with the innkeeper collecting bets that he later splits with the duo, takes a different turn when Zelikman and Amram cross paths with a spoiled young man, who turns out to be a Khazar prince, whose family has been wiped out by a pretender to the kingdom’s throne.
Reluctantly, our intrepid pair gets caught up in the historical pageant of the time, whose results have a life-changing effect, particularly on Zelikman, whose mysterious past is slowly, intriguingly, unveiled.
Gentlemen of the Road is a nod to fantasy writer Michael Moorcock, to whom the book is dedicated, and also to the late Fritz Leiber, whose gritty Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books are a clear template for this adventure tale. The novel succeeds mostly because of its use of the compelling and legendary Khazar backdrop.
The Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people who converted to Judaism about 1,200 years ago, likely to avoid having to choose sides between the Christian and Muslim powers who were pressuring them, remain one of the more intriguing side stories in Jewish history. It’s an inspired move for Chabon to base a novel on their true-life actions.
He’s less satisfying with his portraits of Zelikman and Amram, not because you don’t believe their relationship – you do – but because they’re so sketchily depicted. The novel, which was initially published in 15 serialized chapters in The New York Times Magazine, is, after all, less than 200 pages long and could easily have used an additional 50 pages to flesh out its rather slight story.
Still, Gentlemen of the Road is a fun read that is steeped in Jewish lore. From Hillel, Zelikman’s beloved horse, and Hannukah, the inept soldier of fortune the duo take along for the ride, to the fatalistic approach Zelikman and Amram bring to their battles, Gentlemen of the Road abounds with Jewish references. Clearly, Chabon has become the go-to guy for unusual depictions of Jewish characters and situations.
He’s not the first genre writer to trade on his Jewish background and knowledge – Robert Silverberg and the late Avram Davidson come immediately to mind – but he’s doing it more consistently and fascinatingly than anyone else. Be it the Golem legend addressed in his remarkable The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; the Holocaust theme woven through his fine Sherlock Holmes-type novella, The Final Solution; the alternate Jewish state at the heart of the imaginative The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; and even the seder scene in the touching Wonder Boys, Chabon seems determined to wring new variations out of the Jewish themes and portraits created by senior writers such as Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth.
It helps, of course, that Chabon’s such a good, descriptive writer, but it’s the thoughtful books and stories in which he puts his immense writing skills to use, that are allowing him to stand out from the pack.