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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 19, 2000
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Like the comic books that animate and inspire it, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is both larger than life and of it too. Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope. Samuel Klayman--self-described little man, city boy, and Jew--first meets Josef Kavalier when his mother shoves him aside in his own bed, telling him to make room for their cousin, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague. It's the beginning, however unlikely, of a beautiful friendship. In short order, Sam's talent for pulp plotting meets Joe's faultless, academy-trained line, and a comic-book superhero is born. A sort of lantern-jawed equalizer clad in dark blue long underwear, the Escapist "roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny's chains!" Before they know it, Kavalier and Clay (as Sam Klayman has come to be known) find themselves at the epicenter of comics' golden age.
But Joe Kavalier is driven by motives far more complex than your average hack. In fact, his first act as a comic-book artist is to deal Hitler a very literal blow. (The cover of the first issue shows the Escapist delivering "an immortal haymaker" onto the Führer's realistically bloody jaw.) In subsequent years, the Escapist and his superhero allies take on the evil Iron Chain and their leader Attila Haxoff--their battles drawn with an intensity that grows more disturbing as Joe's efforts to rescue his family fail. He's fighting their war with brush and ink, Joe thinks, and the idea sustains him long enough to meet the beautiful Rosa Saks, a surrealist artist and surprisingly retrograde muse. But when even that fiction fails him, Joe performs an escape of his own, leaving Rosa and Sammy to pick up the pieces in some increasingly wrong-headed ways.
More amazing adventures follow--but reader, why spoil the fun? Suffice to say, Michael Chabon writes novels like the Escapist busts locks. Previous books such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys have prose of equal shimmer and wit, and yet here he seems to have finally found a canvas big enough for his gifts. The whole enterprise seems animated by love: for his alternately deluded, damaged, and painfully sincere characters; for the quirks and curious innocence of tough-talking wartime New York; and, above all, for comics themselves, "the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could." Far from negating such pleasures, the Holocaust's presence in the novel only makes them more pressing. Art, if not capable of actually fighting evil, can at least offer a gesture of defiance and hope--a way out, in other words, of a world gone completely mad. Comic-book critics, Joe notices, dwell on "the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life." Indeed. --Mary Park
Virtuoso Chabon takes intense delight in the practice of his art, and never has his joy been more palpable than in this funny and profound tale of exile, love, and magic. In his last novel, The Wonder Boys (1995), Chabon explored the shadow side of literary aspirations. Here he revels in the crass yet inventive and comforting world of comic-book superheroes, those masked men with mysterious powers who were born in the wake of the Great Depression and who carried their fans through the horrors of war with the guarantee that good always triumphs over evil. In a luxuriant narrative that is jubilant and purposeful, graceful and complex, hilarious and enrapturing, Chabon chronicles the fantastic adventures of two Jewish cousins, one American, one Czech. It's 1939 and Brooklynite Sammy Klayman dreams of making it big in the nascent world of comic books. Joseph Kavalier has never seen a comic book, but he is an accomplished artist versed in the "autoliberation" techniques of his hero, Harry Houdini. He effects a great (and surreal) escape from the Nazis, arrives in New York, and joins forces with Sammy. They rapidly create the Escapist, the first of many superheroes emblematic of their temperaments and predicaments, and attain phenomenal success. But Joe, tormented by guilt and grief for his lost family, abruptly joins the navy, abandoning Sammy, their work, and his lover, the marvelous artist and free spirit Rosa, who, unbeknownst to him, is carrying his child. As Chabon--equally adept at atmosphere, action, dialogue, and cultural commentary--whips up wildly imaginative escapades punctuated by schtick that rivals the best of Jewish comedians, he plumbs the depths of the human heart and celebrates the healing properties of escapism and the "genuine magic of art" with exuberance and wisdom. Donna Seaman
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The tale of Sammy Clay and his cousin, Josef Kavalier, who has just managed to escape Nazi-occupied Prague, is one of boot-strapping success, but also one of tragedy, repression, lost love, and broken hearts. It is, however, in the end, about redemption, being true to one's self, and second chances.
Chabon writes with his usual inimitable style, creating a unique vision of mid-century New York City, populated with fantastic characters almost as big as the larger-than-life four-color heroes and heroines they create. We see Sammy's greatest dreams realized, his hopes for true love crushed, the precarious balance he finds in later years, and finally, his one last attempt at self-reinvention in a life characterized by little else. We watch Joe escape the clutches of true evil, but agonize when he loses nearly everything, until he slowly reconstructs himself as the man he has always wanted to be. And we see the two cousins, lives intertwined inexorably, support each other, help each other, and ultimately, act as the source of the other's salvation.
There are few writers of Chabon's talent and skill working today, and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" is one of his best.
It was so beautiful and adventurous and human and sad and happy and wondrous that, over the course of a month, it lifted me out of the darkness. I rationed it to one chapter a day, which I read on the subway on my way to the office. I looked so forward to it. It's one of those books I found myself thinking about when I wasn't reading it, counting the hours until my special half hour on the subway.
I feel like the subject matter mentioned out of context might turn some people off (mostly women): it centralizes around the two jewish boys who created the comic book "The Escapist" (a metaphor for the "Superman" comic) in bustling New York City during and after World War II, a time when America needed a hero. I promise you, though, the characters, the tone, the locations and the deeply human undertones transcend the book's logline. It's really about love, religion, overcoming deep adversity (including nazis, heartbreak and profound loss), loyalty, friendship, death-defying escape acts and edge-of-your-seat excitement and adventure. The word "wondrous" really does capture the feeling the book left me with - a sense of childlike wonder and heart rending emotion simultaneously. It captures the excitement of the time so well that it made me feel I was part of something larger, just by reading it.
I hope you'll treat yourself to this (pulitzer winning) epic of human proportions. Regardless of your sex, religion, race or creed, this book has something amazing to give you. It has stuck with me for over ten years and I can't wait to read it again.