Published by Ballantine Books
Review by W. R. Greer
There are books that are just fun to read. They don't plumb the depths of the human condition or are weighted down with serious themes that engage both the cognitive processes of the brain and the emotional center of the reader. Instead they just hit that pleasure center of the brain, releasing those literary endorphins that come with an adventure tale full of heroes taking on a quest against what seems to be impossible odds. Throw in an exotic locale and historical era, some swordplay and trickery, and you have the swashbuckling adventure of Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road.
The underdog heroes of the novel are an unlikely pairing. Zelikman ("a slight, thin-shanked fellow, gloomy of countenance, white as tallow, his hair falling in two golden curtains on either side of his long face") is a surgeon from the Frankish Kingdom who is far from home and in no hurry to return. He's Jewish and has suffered from the persecution of Jews in his homeland. He loves his hats (which seem to suffer a lot of violent acts) and his horse, Hillel. His comrade is Amram, an Abyssinian who'd served in the army of the Byzantine Empire ("with his skin that was lustrous as the tarnish on a copper kettle, and his eyes womanly as a camel's, and his shining pate with its ruff of wool whose silver hue implied a seniority attained by only the most hardened of men, and above all with the air of stillness that trumpeted his murderous nature to all but the greenest travelers on this minor spur of the Silk Road"). Amram, while still swinging a mighty axe, has a softer heart than one might think, and Zelikman is no pansy in a fight. Together, they travel far and wide as gentlemen of the road, sometimes as thieves or con men, other times as swords for hire. Zelikman, though, is more interested in treating those who suffer injuries in battle than causing the injuries, and his medicinal skill garners him important allies at times.
Gentlemen of the Road is set in the 10th century and finds the duo pulling their latest con, and running from its consequences, in the Kingdom of Arran. They encounter a young man who claims to be the heir to the throne of Khazaria, a kingdom of red-haired Jews between the Caspian and Black Seas. The teenager is named Filaq ("the stripling had as yet no shadow on his chin or lip, but he stood nearly as tall as Zelikman, and from the rosiness of his complexion, the gloss of his close-cropped russet hair and a commingled look of shame and haughtiness in his eyes, the physician from Regensburg was able to infer fifteen or sixteen years of good food, clean linens, and the expectation of having his wishes granted") and he's determined to return to Khazaria, avenge the death of his father (who had been the bek) and most of his family, and restore the throne to his family's name.
Predictably, Zelikman and Amram are reluctantly drawn into Filaq's obsession. It's an adventure that's certain to go wrong, and they often have to rescue each other from increasing peril, but somehow they raise a ragtag army that marches with Filaq to the walls of the city of Atil, capital of Khazaria. Along the way, they must dodge the Khazarian soldiers and Rus marauders who are looting cities along the shores of the Caspian (Khazarian) Sea. Their futile plans consistently go wrong, they're often captured, surprises abound, elephants and a bordello play a vital role, and Zelikman's hats take a beating.
In some ways, Gentlemen of the Road can be considered stereotypical. It follows many tried and true conventions of the adventure novel — the buddies who are bonded for life but each of them expect the other to leave whenever the time is appropriate, continuing peril and rescue, plot twists based on those who are not what they seem, and important help from those who wouldn't appear sympathetic to their cause. This is Michael Chabon, though, and he puts his inimitable imprint on the story. He admits in an afterword that he originally wanted to title the novel Jews with Swords, and he wanted to go "in search of a little adventure." He populates Gentlemen of the Road with unusual, but seemingly historically correct, characters in a part of the globe the world has long forgotten. He's a master at character description and locale exposition and it's easy to enter the world of Zelikman and Amram in a place most of us have never been. His heroes play well off each other, and even the brash and entitled Filaq becomes a sympathetic character by the novel's end.
While the usual thematic elements of good versus evil are played out in Gentlemen of the Road, there are no deep issues at work here. Michael Chabon has created a short, adventure novel (less than 200 pages) that delivers all the expected pleasures of the best of the genre, making Gentlemen of the Road a pleasureful way to pass an afternoon. It's almost enough to make you wish you could read the further adventures of Zelikman and Amram, but perhaps that's too much of a good thing. The morsel of temptation provided by Michael Chabon attains that desired effect — leave them wanting more.
Copyright © 2007 reviewsofbooks.com