What strange days these are to be a Jew. On the one hand, we have the military might of Israel, on the other Woody Allen and his crippling neuroses. The most visible advocate for the ancient mysticism of Kabbalah is Madonna, that wayward product of a Catholic upbringing in suburban Detroit, who likened herself to Jesus in a video and now prefers the Old Testament name Esther. Searching for universal justice, Jewish leaders once marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Today, the closest we come to solidarity is the Jewfro. One might find this perplexing, but when have the chosen people ever enjoyed the comforts of a simple life?
From the ashes of cultural unity has risen a new Jewish literature, propagated by young writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, his wife Nicole Krauss, and Gary Shteyngart. Coming of age at a time when the Lower East Side has more bistros than synagogues, these authors depart radically from the mid-century stalwarts—Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud—whose Judaism never reconciled with gentile America. Less occupied with the anxieties of assimilation, these new Jewish novelists search through diaspora, immigration, and genocide for those precious strands of continuity that would make Jewish history their own.
Presiding over this reclamation is Michael Chabon, whose new novel, Gentlemen of the Road, completes a trilogy of whimsical fictions about the Jews. Kavalier and Clay earned a Pulitzer for doling out equal measures of Holocaust dread and comic-book escapism; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which places the promised land in Alaska, was enthusiastically received. In the victory lap that constitutes the afterword to Gentlemen of the Road, Chabon describes his desire to explore the “grace and glory” of Jewish history, as opposed to the machinations of contemporary life that previously occupied his career.
Set in the 10th-century empire of Khazaria, a largely forgotten kingdom of nomadic Jews in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, Gentlemen of the Road harks back to popular novels of the Victorian era. Like many works from that period, it first appeared in serial form-—in The New York Times Magazine earlier this year-—and contains full-page line drawings, capably executed by Gary Gianni. Beyond the surface similarities, however, Chabon recalls the Victorians in his desire to piece from the travails of outcasts and vagabonds a morality play that, by virtue of its humble subjects, readily acquires the patina of authority.
As in the adventure tales that Chabon emulates, didacticism hides behind a tortuous plot. Zelikman and Amram, a lonely Jew and his African partner, traverse the Central Asian desert, defrauding travelers with staged fights. But fortune intervenes, putting the duo in charge of Filaq, a teenager who, it turns out, was next in line for the Khazar throne. Filaq’s place has been claimed by his uncle Biljan, who took power by force and intends to keep it that way. Not only does this garden-variety Macbeth want his hapless nephew killed, but he has used a devil’s pact with Slavic tribes to drive a wedge between his Jewish constituents and the Muslim minority, who had heretofore co-existed peacefully.
Though neither Zelikman nor Amram wants to play “pit mastiff in the dogfights of empire,” both recognize the importance of bringing civility back to Khazaria. After all, “[i]f the Khazars, that tolerant and pragmatic people, had fallen prey to doctrinal strife, what hope was there for the world?” Since the Khazars are Jews, and Jews are beloved by God, they serve as the bellwether of human conduct: Khazaria had better right itself quickly, lest it come to resemble the “gloomy precincts of Christendom.” Consequently, an army of mercenaries and discontents, headed by the erstwhile prince and his custodians, makes its way toward the capital, intent on restoring peace in Khazaria by deposing Biljan.
Chabon’s heavy-handed Hebrew pride might be excusable in an otherwise brisk narrative, but this slim volume packs considerable flab. Hemingway could summon Spain in a single sentence; Chabon spends 200 pages kicking around the Central Asian plain without digging beneath the sun-baked surface. The real culprit here is not Biljan but unabashed logorrhea, with clunkers like “the migraine blaze of day” and the “honeyed hand of a dream” turning every page into a sort of verbal ambush. It’s not unfair to wonder if Chabon, like his Victorian predecessors, was being paid by the word.
But stylistic indiscretions, however irritating, are secondary to Chabon’s inability to treat Jews with the humanity that has so often been denied to them. In Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, the oversexed Alexander Portnoy sears unease into the page with prolonged riffs on masturbation. He may not shed light on the Holocaust, but Portnoy is far closer to flesh than any of the tortured abstractions peddled by the Jewish New Wave. Despite lofty intentions, the likes of Chabon and Foer are unwilling to examine history on its own harsh terms, parading the Jews as little more than evidence of their own nuanced sensitivity or refined moral palate. As such, their project is no less self-serving than Madonna’s public flaunting of the Kabbalah. But hey, at least the girl can sing.