Chabon's ancient romp enchants modern times

novel | Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon, Ballantine/Del Ray, $22, 204 pages

Michael Chabon writes fearlessly about anything. His snappy literary fiction is as unpredictable as it is brilliant.

His latest novel, "Gentlemen of the Road," takes place in the 10th century in the Khazar Empire, a Jewish kingdom that existed north of the Black Sea in Central Asia along the legendary Silk Road.

The gentlemen of the title are an odd pair. Zelikman is tall, thin, blond, and European. An exile from his homeland, he is a physician who heals the sick with potions and poultices. Amram is a dark giant. He's an African who wields a massive battle axe. He's searching for his daughter who vanished years before.

In this classic adventure fiction, Zelikman and Amram -- con men and warriors -- travel the Silk Road. They encounter caravans and armies waging war as empires are falling all around them.

This book takes me back to my earliest memories of the joys of reading as our grifters encounter Filaq, a young Khazar prince de-throned by his greedy uncle. These warriors recruit a motley army to right this wrong. The adventure begins. Chabon piles on the plot twists with mile-long sentences that unroll like Persian carpets, exotic and flawless. Even the chapter titles roll down the pages like a pagan horde descending from the hills: "On Following The Road To One's Destiny, With The Usual Intrusions Of Violence And Grace" and "On The Melancholy Duty Of Soldiers To Contend With The Messes Left By Kings."

In a hilarious "Afterward," Chabon writes: "look at yourself, right now: sitting in your seat on a jet airplane, let's say, in your unearthly polyester and neoprene shoes, listening to digital music, crawling across the sky from Charlotte to Las Vegas, and hoping to lose yourself, your home, your certainties, the borders and barriers of your life -- by means of a bundle of wood pulp, sewn and glued and stained with blobs of pigment and resin."