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November 8, 2007

New Chabon novel travels the Silk Road

Michael Chabon, author of Gentlemen of the Road, presumes that his readership knows little about the kingdom of the Khazars, about the political and religious tension in 10th-century Eurasia, or about the competing middle empires of the Caucus region. What is more important than all of this for the readers of this novel is that they must love an adventure. Not into adventure? You might want to sit this one out.

Set on the Silk Road in 950 A.D., the novel follows Amram, an axe-toting African giant known for his witty dialogue and his short temper, and Zelikman, a lanky blond-haired Frank who is wont to be found either philosophically moping about his existence or displaying a bizarre attachment to his beloved horse, Hillel. This pair of rogues and lifelong companions travels the road staging bar fights for money and living the romanticized life of hustle in a strange and legendary historical setting.

After a string of unexpected events, Amram and Zelikman find themselves responsible for the care of a Khazarian prince named Filaq, whose father was recently killed and displaced by an overzealous villain. Their journey to take Filaq back to the Khazar capital and to reclaim his kingdom involves near-death experiences, humor, and moments of human tenderness. In the midst of the never-ending action, they find themselves entangled in a discussion of Jewish identity. While the three main characters have different geographic and ethnic origins, they are all Jewish. As Chabon explains in an earnest afterword to the novel, he entered into this genre of adventure fiction with his familiar theme of Jewish identity in mind. “In the relation of the Jews to the land of their origin, in the ever-extending, ever-thinning cord, braided from the freedom of the wanderer and the bondage of exile that binds a Jew to his Home, we can make out the unmistakable signature of adventure.” While he makes joking references to the hilarity of a Woody Allen–based character that carries a sword, his book solemnly suggests that adventure is as much a part of Jewish identity as it is a part of Christian or Muslim identity.

The juxtaposition of the adventure fiction elements of this novel with the themes of friendship and Jewishness found in what Chabon calls his “serious fiction” makes us wonder: To what extent does Chabon back away from “serious fiction?” The question of genre has always been one with which Chabon has dealt, whether by force or by choice. In his early works such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his M.F.A. advisors steered him in the direction of late-century naturalism while convincing him that this was the only way to make it as an American writer. Since then, he has willingly diverged from that path and forged his own, a path lying somewhere between this so-called naturalism and fantastic adventure.

In the grand tradition of Charles Dickens and newspaper comic strips, Gentlemen of the Road was originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine. In some ways, releasing this story serially rather than in a complete novel seems like it would be the most successful way to tell it. Each chapter devotes itself to a coherent episode within a continuum of the story, and each episode moves toward a climax and ends with a cliffhanger. At the end of the chapters, the reader is left in childlike anticipation of what will happen to their heroes next. This tried-and-true technique works well when the audience can look forward to the arrival of the Sunday paper with last week’s story in mind, but for the reader of a novel, this rollercoaster pacing tends to be a little repetitive and exhausting. Then again, we are dealing with an adventurous plot and swashbuckling characters, not to mention intermittent illustrations by artist Gary Gianni. What better way to complete the novel’s comic-book feel than to tell it in a comic-inspired form?

In Gentlemen of the Road, Chabon shows himself to be above all a masterful wordsmith, but for fans of his previous work, this is nothing new. His refined talent for word arrangement is something for which the Pulitzer-winning author is known. His ability to capture the precise emotions of his characters indirectly through careful timing and de-familiarizing metaphors is incessantly impressive, just as it has always been. What is new about Gentlemen of the Road is that it goes further into adventure fiction than Chabon’s previous work while maintaining its touching seriousness. We imagine ourselves with the derring-do and charisma of Amram and Zelikman while also relating to the complex dynamics of their friendship. And as they face decisions of how to act in the face of a war in which the political and the religious are deceptively interchangeable, we are reminded to consider how to survive the adventure of our own world.