The original title for this novel was Jews with Swords, which perfectly captures its spirit as well as its subject. It also, incidentally, suggests a good literary parlour game, in which classic works are simplistically renamed to reflect their content: Day Out in Dublin, for Ulysses, or Beautiful Child Abuse, for Lolita, perhaps.
In any case, the original title for Gentlemen of the Road is apposite, because it at once points to a historical period of weapon-wielding (10th-century Khazaria, as it happens) and offers a clue to the exuberant manner in which the tale is told. Michael Chabon is a literary novelist, but has here ‘gone off in search of a little adventure’ with a pleasurable crack at swashbuckling genre fiction.
It tells the story of two friends, Amram and Zelikman (the eponymous Gentlemen, or Jews), who make their living as thieves and fraudsters. Amram is a giant Abyssinian, who wields a heavy axe called ‘Defiler of Your Mother’; Zelikman is perhaps the perfect Jewish hero, being half adventurer (‘killer of men’), half responsible doctor (‘healer by nature’). They meet a desperate scion of an imperial family, Filaq, whose parents have been massacred by a usurper and who is desperate to raise an army and recover the throne. And so, by a series of unlikely events (featuring rape, murder, cross-dressing,
sieges and attempted executions) involving a melting pot of characters (Norsemen, Muslim mercenaries, Radanite Jews and giant elephants), the novel charts their attempts to ‘hustle a kingdom’, their biggest con yet.
As will be clear, this is (thankfully) not a thoughtful meditation on the Middle East, but what John Buchan called a ‘shocker’, the extravagant attempt by Chabon to capture ‘the grand and awful business of adventure’. One central inspiration is avowedly unliterary: the action movie (including Romancing the Stone, according to the author; perhaps the least literary inspiration ever openly recorded).