Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road

Gentlemen of the Road, the newest novel from critically acclaimed author Michael Chabon, was originally titled Jews with Swords. It’s one of the greatest mistakes in all of publishing history that the original title wasn’t kept; Jews with Swords evokes a humorous, anachronistic sense of adventure that sums up the spirit of the book in a way that the bland title Gentlemen of the Road can never hope to do. The failed potential of its title aside, Gentlemen of the Road is still worth considering; not only is it an interesting departure for Chabon, but it’s also a quick, fun read, a light and entertaining adventure reminiscent of Dumas and other serial adventure stories.

Chabon is best known for his complex, literary works, including 2000’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a dense historical novel tracing the lives of two Jewish comic book writers in the years surrounding World War II. Gentlemen of the Road, first published in installments in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, is certainly a different direction for Chabon: the novel is set in 950 A.D. in the kingdom of Arran, in present day Azerbaijan, and deals mostly with the Khazars, a Turkish people who embraced Judaism and sometimes fought their Christian and Muslim neighbors. The premise sounds as obscure as something out of Pynchon, but Chabon does a good job keeping the history from dominating the story. Most of the time the historical elements add some exotic flavor to the standard swashbuckling, although there are a few points that may require you to consult the map in front of the book to figure out what the hell’s going on.

Although it borrows heavily from 19th century adventure serials, the protagonists of Gentlemen of the Road are a perfectly mismatched duo straight out of buddy comedy movie: Zelikman is a chronically depressed, pale, thin Frank with a penchant for jaunty hats, while Amram is a hulking, witty African with a gigantic axe. The pair travel all over Arran, conning whoever they can find out of whatever they’ve got, until they encounter Filaq, who claims to be the deposed heir to the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria. Zelikman and Amram, both Jews in exile themselves, feel somewhat obliged to help the young boy, and go from his personal escorts to full scale general in the revolution. Rest assured, there’s plenty of swordplay, sex, and secrets on the way to the very satisfactory, if not completely expected, conclusion.

Chabon’s ornate, complex writing style is in full force here. He has a real gift to render even the most basic of things in intense, descriptive detail, sometimes to a fault; Chabon can’t just say that Amram threw his knife, but he “reached his left hand into his right buskin and, in a continuous gesture as fluid and unbroken as that by which a falconer looses his fatal darling into the sky, produced as a shard of bright Arab steel, its crude hilt swaddled in strips of hide, and sent it hunting across the benches.” This only occasionally gets annoying, however; most of the time, Chabon’s descriptive powers add a vivacity that more than makes up for the historical obscurity of the book.

Gentlemen of the Road isn’t anything earth-shattering, but it’s a fun throwback to the days when adventure stories were in vogue and a solid way to pass some time over the holiday. I just can’t help thinking I wouldn’t like it a little more if it were called Jews with Swords.

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