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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

by Michael Chabon

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was nominated for numerous other literary awards, and is widely considered to be Michael Chabon's best work to date. It is the story of two young Jewish cousins whose meeting in 1939 ignites a luminous career in comic books at a time in history when the art form exploded in American popular culture.

Sammy Klayman, son of a circus strongman, suffers from ironically weak legs, the result of a bout with polio at an early age. It's a deficiency that is more than compensated for by Sammy's rich imagination and enterprising spirit. The arrival of his Czech cousin serendipitously coincides with ambitions that currently tend towards illustration, particularly in the field of comics.

Josef Kavalier has never seen a comic book. He was, however, trained in illustration at The Acadmy of Fine Arts in Prague, a city from which he has recently escaped to arrive in Sammy's Brooklyn bedroom destitute and yet fully committed to rescuing his family from the dark shadow that Nazi Germany has already cast over his homeland.
With their combined talents, a serendipitously timed surge in the average American boy's demand for superhero comic books, and a mutual fascination with Harry Houdini, the Escapist is born:

"To all those who toil in the bonds of slavery and the shackles of oppression, he offers the hope of liberation and the promise of freedom... Armed with superb physical and mental training, a crack team of assistants, and ancient wisdom, he roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny's chains!"

During a pivotal time in the history of comic books, the team of Kavalier and Clay (Sam's nom de plume), became legendary alongside Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer-artist team that created Superman the year before the Escapist's birth in 1939. In fact, Chabon populates his novel not only with these and other comic book icons, but with other cultural luminaries such as Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Salvador Dali, whose life Joe saves at a cocktail party.
There is much more I could reveal about Kavalier and Clay, a novel that spans some 15 years in the lives of its characters, but it would be imprudent of me, as in doing so, I would be pulling back the curtain on one of Michael Chabon's most finely wrought creations, a novel that has left some of its readers with the firm impression that two men by the names of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay actually had, during World War II, created a comic book character called The Escapist (Chabon has since noted being approached by individuals at book signings, inquiring whether it might be still possible to get their hands on one of the old comics).

It is with his attention to every detail that Chabon achieves this effect upon his readers, wringing something from the world that was never really there at all, a feat of illusion directly counter to that which he attributes to nature itself: "The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place."

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an intricately researched and sweeping historical novel. With comics in the foreground and war on the world stage, the author explores the themes of escapism and of the meaning and purpose of art, while simultaneously plumbing the depths of love, magic, and redemption in the lives of his richly drawn characters.

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