So I’m at the library and I see a beautiful little book in the New Books. The cover has a circle of elephants, the endpapers have a map of Khazaria, the page numbers are in red ink, the chapters have witty titles, and even the font itself is a delight to the eye. Turns out it’s Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon.
The prose at first glance seems convoluted and overwritten–but funny. Here’s three sentences taken from the first page:
For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in 10 languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve….
Among the travelers at the caravansary there was a moment of admiration, therefore, for the bird’s temerity when it seemed to declare, in its excellent Greek, that the African consumed his food in just the carrion-scarfing way one might expect of the bastard offspring of a bald-pated vulture and a Barbary ape….
Then, before anyone quite understood that a calumny so apposite went beyond the powers even of the myna and that the bird was innocent, this once, of slander, the African reached his left hand into his right buskin and, in a continuous gesture as fluid and unbroken as that by which a falconer looses his fatal darling into the sky, produced a shard of bright Arab steel, its crude hilt swaddled in strips of hide, and sent it hunting across the benches.
In the first chapter, you’re not sure who the viewpoint will be. The ostler? The mahout? The African giant? The skinny Frank? Then the African and the Frank get into a fight for no good reason, and by the end of the chapter you get the joke. This is a homage to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Or, as Chabon puts it in his afterword, Jews with Swords.
The African is Amran, an Abyssinian Jew. The skinny man is Zelikman, a Frankish Jew. They fall in with a youth, Filaq, who turns out to be the youngest son of the bek of the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria. They have an adventure, with stolen horses and mercenary armies, and wronged heirs, and Viking hordes. And hats are very important.
I enjoyed it, right to the last chapter. Suddenly, all the right coincidences happen, and everyone gets what they deserve. It’s all wrapped up awfully neatly before our gentlemen hit the road.
Fittingly enough, it was serialized in the New York Times. You can find links to all chapters in the Conclusion.