The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
It is New York City in 1939. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just pulled off his greatest feat to date: smuggling himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague. He is looking to make big money, fast, so that he can bring his family to freedom. His cousin, Brooklyn’s own Sammy Clay, is looking for a collaborator to create the heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit the American dreamscape: the comic book. Out of their fantasies, fears, and dreams, Joe and Sammy weave the legend of that unforgettable champion the Escapist. And inspired by the beautiful and elusive Rosa Saks, a woman who will be linked to both men by powerful ties of desire, love, and shame, they create the otherworldly mistress of the night, Luna Moth. As the shadow of Hitler falls across Europe and the world, the Golden Age of comic books has begun.
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