Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road

I created a new genre category for this book: Rollicking Yarn. I’m also including this in the Prose Poetry genre because every sentence made me squirm with joy. In fact, if rollicking yarns aren’t your thing you might want to get yourself a copy of this book anyway, and just read the chapter titles. (Examples: Chapter One, On Discord Arising From the Excessive Love of a Hat; Chapter Nine, On Anxieties Arising From the Impermissibility, However Unreasonable, of an Elephant’s Rounding Out a Prayer Quorum.)

In the afterword, Michael Chabon reveals that his working title for this novel was “Jews with Swords.” Which makes me laugh (and Chabon also talks about why the idea of sword-wielding Jews strikes us as funny despite the existence of such well-known Jewish sword wielders as Judah Maccabee), but in fact this book is about Jews with swords.

The two main characters, Amram and Zelikman, fit the typical buddy story profile — Amram is the big, brawny (though not stupid) extravert and Zelikman is the small, clever introvert. Together they travel through the Caucasus, circa AD 950, having one adventure after another. They are Jewish, sort of, and they carry swords, sort of. (Actually Amram carries a battleaxe named Mother-Defiler and Zelikman carries a pointy thing called Lancet.) And, as they travel through the Caucasus having adventures, Michael Chabon, who has such a way with words, describes it all with delicious wit and precision. Example:

The moon rose, and in her faint, cool light Amram watched Zelikman creep along. In his long and skinny shanks there was none of the grace but all the intensity of a cat going about its fatal mousing, the patience, the grim reserve of a predator. He rose up behind the nearer picket, covered the man’s face with his leather-gloved hand and embraced him with the other arm.  A moment later he eased the man to the earth. When, rarely, Zelikman recalled his mother to Amram, it was often a bedside memory of her seeing him through fevers and nightmares, or singing to him in the soft Latin dialect of her grandmothers, and the shade of that unknown Jewess always seemed to appear in Zelikman when he anesthetized a guard or watchman and laid him tenderly on the ground.

I’m going to end this post with Chabon’s definition of adventure, from the afterword:

Adventures are a logical and reliable result — and have been since at least the time of Odysseus — of the fatal act of leaving one’s home, or trying to return to it again. All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one’s home. As soon as you have crossed your doorstep or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws, and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval (but also the disapproval and repression) of your family and neighbors are not to be had: then you have entered into adventure, a place of sorrow, marvels, and regret.

“That damned and magical space,” oh yes!


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