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Chabon swashbuckles into 10th century adventure

You can guess that a writer may be struggling when the first printing of his latest work already includes an explanatory afterword.

A mere seven months ago, Michael Chabon published the full-length novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," which was (excepting a novella and a young-adult novel) for all intents and purposes the follow-up to 2000's Pulitzer-Prize winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay."

In his latest side-project "Gentlemen of the Road," Chabon has again chosen to tell us of the amazing adventures of a dynamic, charmingly contrasting duo. This time, however, his tongue has fully left his cheek and the adventures are of an explicit, traditional variety. The book is set in 10th century Asia and involves kidnappings and sword fights and the dubious heirs to imperiled kingdoms; if Yul Brynner showed up riding an elephant or Errol Flynn swashbuckled by, they would fit right in.

The story is rich and fun and gives Chabon (a notorious vocab junkie) an excuse to use words like "donjon" and "sukkah" and "kagan." It follows a "Frankish scarecrow" named Zelikman and a "giant African" named Amram as they dash into and out of scrapes and scuffles and negotiations and political subterfuge, brandishing their blades before them and cracking wise all the way.

It's a literary buddy movie, if you like that sort of thing. And if you've been actively missing that sort of thing -- if you're tired of tense, revelatory New Yorker stories about disastrous divorces and distant Dads -- Chabon is on your side: apparently, he's been missing this sort of thing, too.

And as the strangely defensive afterword makes clear, reading and writing themselves are often a search for adventure. As Chabon so nimbly puts it:

"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."

In the afterword, Chabon successfully defends his desire to write an old-fashioned adventure story. He also adequately defends the pointed Jewishness of his characters (the original title of "Gentlemen of the Road" was "Jews with Swords.") After all, who has done more mythological wandering and home-seeking than the Jews?

If "Gentlemen of the Road" -- afterword included -- were the honors thesis of a monstrously gifted grad student, we could give it an A . But unfortunately it's published fiction, and as such it seems a little . . . well, defensive.

Chabon first published "Gentlemen of the Road" as semiweekly installments in the New York Times Magazine (perhaps driven again by nostalgia for that sort of thing). This likely explains the afterword: he's had time to consider reader response to his effort, and perhaps feels compelled to respond to the response.

But one possible, increasingly relevant response to all of Chabon's responding -- offered here with all the desperate force of an intervention -- is this: come home, Michael Chabon. Stop your wandering. Put down the weaponry and step away from the research. Modern day America needs you.

By now it's obvious that we're in the second of two discrete Chabon "eras"; while his early years gave us naturalistic triumphs like "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Wonder Boys," Chabon has since left the building for the dazzling heights of Elsewhere, and has yet to return.

Of course, he won his well-deserved Pulitzer while on vacation in Elsewhere, and he owes us nothing. His only imperative is self-expression, and his stunning gifts allow him to consistently express himself in a way that is uniquely worth reading.

Also in Chabon's defense, at this point in his life he may have all the modern-day reality he can handle: The man has four children and works at home. If he needs to take flight to the Khazaria or Summerland or Sitka or 1939 of his mind, one can't blame the instinct. He's likely just writing the books he'd most like to read, and those who like to read HIM will likely continue to support his reputation as one of the best American writers of his generation.

But it has come to seem that rather than acting as our guide to new and exotic locales, Chabon is actively running away from the one he actually occupies.

So is it wrong to miss him? Is it ungenerous -- in fact, downright un-Chabon -- to feel that Michael Chabon the writer is now a bit like that close friend who has emphatically embraced a vaguely cultish alternative religion?

You know that friend: the one you want to support -- really, you do -- but as much as you may acknowledge that what he's doing might be right for him, a connection has been broken. Your friend has gone somewhere you can't completely follow.

Chabon's early works allowed for a certain intimacy with his characters that his current work does not. There's a bit of organic frustration, having loved Art Bechstein and Grady Tripp, in facing the fact that we may never again know how a Chabon hero would navigate a modern-day, real-life adventure.
Did Chabon make some sort of deal with the devil requiring that at the crack of the new millennium he'd stop publishing fiction that addressed the modern age?

If so, it's a particularly poignant shame at the moment.

Recently, Phillip Roth's dispatch of Nathan Zuckerman highlighted the literary impact that is felt when a "voice of his generation" kills off his stand-in. Like Updike's Rabbit, Roth's Zuckerman translated much of his era to readers of the fiction in which he starred. Without him, his real-world contemporaries have lost a valuable perspective into their own zeitgeist.

How blessed Chabon's generation would be if he had given us a stand-in we could follow for years to come: one whose triumphs and troubles and insight and flaws might reflect and illuminate our own.

Maybe once Chabon's kids are grown his imagination will come home to roost, and we'll get our Rabbit or our Zuckerman. In the meantime, those who love Chabon's writing will surely persist -- however wearily -- in tagging along on each new amazing adventure.

Emily Simon is a freelance writer living in California.


Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure

By Michael Chabon


204 pages, $21.95

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