In perhaps the oddest afterword to a book I’ve ever read, Michael Chabon talks about how difficult it was for him to give up on his working title for Gentlemen of the Road. He finally decided that Jews With Swords wasn’t going to work because history and culture had brought us to the point where the phrase called images of, for example, “Woody Allen backing toward the nearest exit behind a barrage of wisecracks and a wavering rapier [or] uncle Manny, dirk between his teeth, slacks belted at the armpits, dropping from the chandelier to knock together the heads of a couple of nefarious auditors.”
Despite all the demonstrably courageous Jewish warriors of history, the image of a swashbuckling Jew just wasn’t there in the popular consciousness.
Chabon talks also about the place of Gentlemen in his own work, which he states has been produced always with an eye toward establishing himself as a presence in the world of serious literature. How and why, then, do we open this volume to find ourselves among the 10th century Kahzars, ‘a fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea?’ A relatively primitive, tribal world of blood, brutality, elephants, horses, swords, knives, and spears? With illustrations, no less? It’s like a nineteenth century adventure volume a la Kipling or Fitzgerald. Why?
Because he wanted to, Chabon seems to suggest. However, behind this “dazzling trifle” (as one reviewer termed it) is, I think, a somewhat larger purpose. As in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Kavalier and Clay themes of isolation and loneliness are strong here. Our protagonist, Zelikman, is a sly fellow, quick with wit and knife. But he’s also a doctor and a loner. His companion, Amram, is a black African who attracts wonder and attention wherever he goes because of his dark skin as much as because of his size (large) and his combat skills (prodigious). But they both occupy a twilight zone between outcasts and accepted oddities. In a world of rough and ready morals, Zelikman claims never to have lain with man or woman. Talk about speaking against the dominant paradigm. So, without making excessive intellectual claims for this Schherezade-like adventure tale, I think it’s safe to say that Gentlemen of the Road is at least partly about what it’s like to live on the outside. To never be quite part of any community. Even if the community is Jewish and one of your main companions is named Hannukah.
Yet it’s also about saving a kingdom, even when you don’t much like what you’re saving it for. It’s not a matter of idealism, but a matter of obligation to the culture, or the race, or something like that. And with not a little opportunism thrown in, of course. Might sound a little stereotypical? Or is it traditional?
But whatever underlying social and literary significance this might have, it’s really one of those flights of fancy into a strange and compelling land where combat is personal and cultural. Where your tribe is the most important thing, and where you might team up with another tribe against a third, but you don’t ever confuse alliance with assimilation. Assimilation is, you see, the ultimate death. To be avoided at all costs. Even your life. Sounds disturbingly modern in some ways, doesn’t it? If that isn’t enough to recommend it, it has the most elephants of any book I’ve read since Water For Elephants. That ought to seal the deal.