In the afterword to this novella of medieval adventure, Michael Chabon all but apologizes for writing about Abyssinians with double-bladed battleaxes, trickster Jewish physicians, and lost princes in disguise. A literary author famous for serious stories of marital discord in Pittsburgh, he says, has no business composing descriptions of swordplay. True enough as far as it goes, perhaps, but it doesn't go any farther than the year 2000, when Chabon left realism behind forever and entered the fantasy world of Kavalier and Clay. All his work since has simultaneously sent its characters off on life-changing quests, and recorded their neurotic grumblings about whether they're the type of people suited to such gallivanting.
What's different, then, about Gentlemen Of The Road: A Tale Of Adventure, is that its heroes know who they are. Amram the African and Zelikman the Jew are rogues and mercenaries, interested only in scams, gold, and quality horseflesh. They take an elephant-master's commission to deliver a captive boy to safety in Azerbaijan, but soon get caught up in the boy's story: his family murdered, his brother the rightful king of the Khazars sold into slavery, and a usurper on the throne. Against their will, the hard-bitten swordsmen help young Filaq raise an army and storm the gates of the kagan, the untouchable and secluded master of kings, to depose the evil Buljan and set the land to rights.
Chabon dedicates the slim book to Michael Moorcock, the famed blood-and-thunder fantasist, and he channels H. Rider Haggard for exotic swashbuckling and Fritz Leiber for cynical violence. It's hard to imagine any of those writers creating something so compressed and sketchy, however. Like his other quickie novella, The Final Solution, Gentlemen Of The Road is more a good idea than a good read. Some fascinating business with elephants and a healthy sprinkling of Chabon's lovely metaphors ("the dead men who had been laid by the side of the road in a neat row like the physician's instruments in his canvas roll") don't make up for the emptiness at its heart. Chabon fails to plumb the depths of its possibilities or find its restless soul, possibly because the whole project was conceived as a detour. Charming as its retro Orientalism can be, Gentlemen remains a forgettable trifle from an author who might have too many enthusiasms and not enough patience.