Michael Chabon says in an afterword that his working title for this highly entertaining adventure story was Jews With Swords. He says that when he told people that, it made them laugh. Well, I like Gentlemen of the Road just fine as a title, but really: there’s a barely-hidden current of pleasure and amusement running through this entire book. Why not laugh?
Zelikman, a gawky and pessimistic Frank, and Amram, a giant Abyssinian, are gentlemen of the road. They are con artists and minor thieves and practicing Jews, and they have a long past together, most of which goes unrevealed but is deeply felt. One evening, they’re swept beyond the usual scope of their activities when they agree to take Filaq, a headstrong and unpleasant heir to the Khazars, back to claim his throne. (I thought Chabon made up Khazaria, a 10th-century Jewish kingdom, but apparently not; he cites sources in his afterword.) The rest of the book is devoted to the kind of swashbuckling that was most popular sixty to a hundred years ago: rampaging elephants, drunken Vikings, switcheroos, beautiful prostitutes, marauding armies, silent poisons.
Chabon seems a little defensive about this foray into unabashed genre fiction. I have no idea why. He does it wonderfully, as you might expect if you’ve read anything else by him: the man can seriously write. This book is huge, grinning fun, but it’s not just fun: Chabon plays with genre conventions, turns them inside-out, gives them a good brushing, sews on new buttons, and sends them back out into the world more fun than they started. There’s pain here, and profound friendship (some of it reminded me of the Aubrey-Maturin relationship in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, only of course less developed), and outright jokes. This book would be a great place to start if you’ve been a little intimidated by the sheer bulk of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (though you should read that, too) — it’s only 225 pages. And it comes with maps and illustrations! Jews With Swords. Why not laugh?