Saturday, September 12, 2009

87. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

In Michael Chabon’s gleeful new novel, a pair of 10th-century soldiers of fortune scramble up and down the trails and gorges of the Caucasus, engaging in a brawl or a boondoggle as regularly as they pause for a meal. Zelikman, a blond European scarecrow whose heart has “turned to stone,” and Amram, a towering African, are apt if unlikely companions on the Silk Road’s shifting social terrain. Each has his pet passions — Zelikman for his hat and his horse, Amram for a sword called Mother-Defiler — and they bicker like the two leads in a buddy film, in this case bound together by the accident of birth that made them both Jewish. But atypically for Jews of the medieval era, they look for the main chance while swinging their blades right and left.

The action is intricate and exuberant. After a spectacular bit of con artistry, Amram and Zelikman receive a windfall: They ride away with an adolescent “stripling,” Filaq, who happens to be in line for the throne of a legendary Jewish kingdom now controlled by a wicked warlord. Fierce of spirit and itchy of foot, young Filaq longs for his home and throne but hides a secret that may keep them out of reach. He also shows a flair for startling escapes and for raising small armies.

With their purse in Filaq’s hands and their fates increasingly linked to his, the gentlemen fling themselves into new exploits. They tangle with a cyclopean mahout, a hired killer, hordes of rampaging Northmen and an elephant of many talents, not the least of which is a gift for drama. Amram, Zelikman and Filaq are regularly parted and reunited, sometimes wounded and even pleasured. The stripling’s secret is duly revealed, and after Filaq endures a last horrible assault, they all steal into the Khazarian stronghold for a suitably bloody climax.

A hillside fortress burns “zealously, sending up rolling shafts of black smoke veined at their root with fire and moaning like the mouth of a cave.” An invalid Northerner, “white as a fish belly,” is dragged from his hiding place and “slashed open like a gushing sack of wine.” On a rare break from the riotous action, Zelikman comes to rest on a “carpet that smelled like rutting sheep, in the cramped gloom of a circular dog tent constructed, as far as he could tell, from equal quantities of rancid felt, dung smoke and the acrid shadow cast by a naphtha lamp.”
Review by Susann Chokal in the New York Times, Octobe 28, 2007

I listened to this short novel on my trip to Provo and back this weekend and really enjoyed it.  I decided to use someone else's review because it's a hard book for me to describe and I had no idea how to spell anyone's name.  There is a lot going on this adventure and the two 10-century conmen are right in the middle of it all.   Amran and Zelikman are fantastic characters and made me laugh several times.  It was a fun book to listen to, especially with the author's afterword  describing why he wrote an adventure story involving Jews when adventure is not a big part of his real life. 
Rating:  4.25


  1. What a great review. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I have The Yiddish Policeman's Union by this author, that I've been trying to get to.

  2. I thought this might make a great movie - comedy and adventure.

  3. Did Chabon read the book himself?

    I agree with raidergirl3, it sounds like a great movie.

  4. Sounds really good. Did you buy the audio or get it from the library?

  5. Diane, I liked The Yiddish Policeman's Union but not as much.

    Raidergirl3. It would be a fantastic movie.

    Bybee. Chabon didn't do the narration just the afterword.

    Booklogged. I got it at the library. I've got it on my computer.

  6. My husband is a big fan of Chabon and I think I will try and steal some of his books.