Michael Chabon wanted to call his latest book Jews With Swords, and you can imagine someone gently dissuading the Pulitzer prizewinner with all the tenderness appropriate in addressing a very gifted, if ingenuous and overly enthusiastic, little boy. This, his fifth novel, breaks with precedent by being set in the medieval Jewish empire of the Khazars, and its tale is a very boyish one of hapless heroes and daring deeds. Add to this setting illustrations and a “boys’ guide” cover, and the overall effect is one of wry nostalgia.
The gentlemen of the title are appealing enough, but about as multidimensional as a child’s heroes. Like every good action figure, they are recognisable by their accessories: Amram, the African, loves his axe; Zelikman, the Jew, loves his hat and horse. The steed in question is the likeable Hillel – “the product of some unsupervised tryst between an Arabian and wild tarpan” – and the focus of several laugh-out-loud moments.
Chabon is a winning raconteur, and despite the essential silliness of this “tale of adventure”, it is hard not to feel affectionate. The author’s arch turn of phrase and zeal for the thesaurus are delivered from the annoying and made sparkling by the wit and the energy of his writing. Ridiculous but very readable rumbustiousness.