In my view, there are certain authors who are adored by readers and the “Literati” alike. Michael Chabon is one of those authors. I haven’t read much of him (only one novel, “Wonder Boys” and his book of essays “Maps and Legends”) so I really didn’t have a solid opinion as to whether or not I agree with the praise that’s often bestowed upon him. With that said, writers like Chabon - among others - are often put into the group of “literary darlings”, something the Literati are always on a constant quest for; and year after year it always becomes someone else. It has also been my view that there are literally tons of writers out there today who do not get the attention that they deserve, but that’s another topic for another time. But a writer like Chabon (and his contemporaries) often have an enormous amount of expectation thrust upon them, whether or not these writers feel the obligation or responsibility to live up to those expectations.
This is why a novel like “Gentlemen of the Road” is a brave novel. I’m sure those in the press and those huddled together at the literary cocktail parties didn’t see this one coming at all and for this reason alone I have to tip my hat to Chabon. A “literary darling” writing what amounts to an adventure story, written in the prose style of the classic adventure stories of Alexander Dumas and Miguel de Cervantes. It is a work of historical fiction as well, set in the year 950 A.D., in and around the ancient land known as Khazaria, the legendary Jewish kingdom in the Caucus mountains. Khazaria’s land would today be parts of the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and the various autonomous regions now swallowed up by Russia: Dagestan, Tartarstan, Chechnya, etc.
The story concerns two Jewish “Gentlemen of the Road”, which is to say scammers, con-artists, mercenaries, who travel together through the Caucus mountains surviving however they can. One is from the land of Francia (now Germany/France), Zelikman, and the other, a hulking, battle axe wielding African from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). During one of their stops at a local inn, after scamming the patrons by faking a fight, they find themselves acting as escorts and defenders of a Khazar prince and soon find themselves involved in a full scale revolution. Along the road to Khazaria, where they are to rid the land of man named Buljan who deposed the former ruler and slaughtered many on the process, they meet with various Arabs, Turks, Byzantines, Muslims, Christians and Jews, banding together to liberate Khazaria from this would-be tyrant. The Khazar prince wants to see his brother, the rightful successor, placed on the throne, and so the adventure ensues.
Complete with swordplay, battles and a dash of comedy, one is reminded of those adventure stories of their youth (particularly mine), and as noted above, the prose style a curious mixture of Dumas and the off the wall humor of Cervantes. The prose style effectively captures these old Adventure romances and does so with joy. You can tell that Chabon was really enjoying himself writing this book. For me, it brought me right back to those very books I first read as a child and this, it seems to me, is a worthy tribute to such stories.
If you have read these kinds of stories as a youngster, are interested in some of the more obscure bits of world history and are looking for a fun read, I highly recommend this book. It even comes complete with illustrations by Gary Gianni, which also enhances the old-school adventure novel feel.