After beginning his career with two impressive literary novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1995), Michael Chabon grew restless and began exploring various corners of popular culture. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) won a Pulitzer Prize for its look at two young men who create a popular comic book about a superhero battling World War II enemies. An admirer of Philip Pullman, Chabon followed this huge success with Summerland (2002), a children’s fantasy built around the mythical qualities of baseball. Next came The Final Solution: A Story of Detection (2004), in which an elderly Sherlock Holmes solves aWorld War II mystery involving a missing parrot against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Then, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), Chabon paid homage to Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald with an intricate tale of two police detectives in an imaginary Jewish enclave in Alaska. Chabon’s growing interest in pulp literature can also be seen in his editing McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2003); contributing to Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist (2004), a comic book based on the superhero of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; and cowriting the screen story for Spider-Man 2 (2004).
This background is necessary for appreciating what Chabon is trying to accomplish in Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, a tribute to escapist literature as well as a consideration of Jewish culture of the tenth century. In the tradition of writers of the past, Chabon first published Gentlemen of the Road as a fifteen-part serial in The New York Times Magazine, and his adventure yarn recalls the works of Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as more recent works such as Fritz Leiber’s “sword and sorcery” series that began with Two Sought Adventure: Exploits of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser (1957). It also resembles the fiction once seen in such pulp magazines as Argosy (1882-1978), though written in a more literary style, with echoes of Voltaire’s Candide (1759). An elephant is named Cunegunde in honor of the heroine of Candide.
Around 950 c.e., Chabon’s protagonists travel from the Kingdom of Arran north to Khazaria, “the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.” (This region is now Ukraine.) Though Zelikman, a scarecrow-thin Frankish Jew, is a physician, he is handy with the thin sword he calls Lancet, despite the Frankish law forbidding Jews to bear arms, even in self-defense. Zelikman is descended from a family of rabbis and physicians, but circumstances have led him to become a hired killer. His longtime friend Amram, a huge Abyssinian Jew, carries a Viking battle-ax called Mother-Defiler and claims to be descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Eager to steal anything but women, Amram is a student “of men’s corruptions,” while his cynical comrade’s only principle is to kill only one man at a time. The two are content to travel about, practicing a little medicine and pulling confidence tricks. The novel opens with their staging a bloody sword fight and then absconding with the wagers placed by unwary suckers.
Things begin to change when they meet Filaq, whose family has recently lost the throne of the Khazars, the Turkic tribe that converted to Judaism and established an empire in the Caucasus Mountains, to the warlord Buljan. Whoever controls this region holds the balance of power in the struggles between the Byzantine Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the Caliphate of Baghdad, the Rus (medieval Russians), and Northern plunderers, among others. Chabon has obviously done considerable research into early medieval history, with his portrait of Khazaria seeming half factual and half imaginary. He cannot resist drawing parallels with the conflict in Iraq: “In Baghdad during the Days of Awe this year, the Muhammadans burned Jewish prayer houses and put to the sword any who would not profess Islam.” Having Jews and Muslims trying to work together to restore a fallen kingdom suggests the way the world should be.
Amram and Zelikman care little about such struggles but find themselves, after being robbed,...
(The entire section is 1799 words.)