THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY
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I'm very happy to say that the subject of this review has won a Pulitzer Prize for literature. This despite the fact that Your Humble Reviewer was the sole SFWAn to nominate it for a Nebula. So, to SFWA at large, I say: NEENER NEENER!
I learned about this book from Art Spiegelman's review-cum-comic strip in a recent (November, 2000) issue of The New Yorker, so when I saw it on the NEW BOOKS shelf of the library I snapped it up. I knew that Michael Chabon had written the novel Wonder Boys, on which the recent Michael Douglas film was based, but I hadn't read that novel nor anything else by Chabon. I'll be at pains to correct that error, because The Amazing Adventurs of Kavalier & Clay is an excellent book.
It details the intertwined lives of two young men, Sammy Clay (nee Klayman) and his European cousin Joseph Kavalier. When the book opens, Sammy is a seventeen-year-old Jewish boy living in a New York tenement, the kind of kid who sells newspapers so that he can buy a set of weights for himself, an omnivorous reader whose taste runs from science fiction and Theodore Dreiser. He even has a full run of The Shadow (a monthly pulp magazine in those days). Chabon says, "He posessed an incorrect but fervent understanding of the workings of television, atom power and antigravity, and harbored the ambition - one of a thousand - of ending his days on the warm sunny beaches of the Great Polar Ocean of Venus." More than anything else, though, Sammy wants to be an illustrator, but he is somewhat hampered by the sad fact that he really can't draw very well.
Joseph Kavalier, meanwhile, is a serious-minded native of Prague, a dedicated amateur magician whose hero is Harry Houdini. Joe wants to be an escapist, in fact, but he begins to have second thoughts after nearly drowning in the River Moldau. Joe's teacher, a laconic old Jew named Kornblum, shares an astonishing secret with Joe: he is the guardian of the fabulous Golem, a weird, mythical giant fashioned from clay and sought by the Nazis for the superstitious Adolf Hitler.
Fleeing the Nazis with Kornblum's help, Joe leaves Prague for America and the Klayman household. Sammy soon discovers that Joe is a much better artist than he is. Together the boys create the Escapist, a heroic comic book character. Comics are just starting to take off in the wake of Superman's popularity, and they soon succeed in securing a deal. The Escapist shares Joe's hatred for Nazis. The powerhouse combination of Joe's excellent artwork and Sammy's strong, pulp-derived storylines leads them to success. Joe's loathing for the Nazis, meanwhile, prompts him to pick fights with strangers who even look German, and he often gets in over his head, being severely beaten more than once.
Chabon has done his homework well, and the details of the infant comic book industry ring true. Some industry pros, like Stan Lee and Gil Kane, make cameo appearances. Kavalier and Clay work for Empire Comics, whose publisher, Sheldon Anapol, buys all the rights from the naïve creators for their character, the Escapist, a detail which will have ramifications throughout the novel. There are some very good scenes revolving around a radio show based on the Escapist, which lead to friendship between Sammy and the lead actor, Tracey Bacon.
At last Joe, weary of getting beaten up but desperate to do something more for the war effort than merely draw pictures of heroes thrashing Nazi soldiers, finances a rescue ship bringing European war orphans to America. One of them is his own beloved brother, Thomas.
To say much more would be to give away some plot points that really help underscore the "amazing" part of the title. The action whips around as it would in a real comic book, from the decaying remains of the 1939 New York World's Fair to Antarctica. Suffice it to say that there is derring-do aplenty here (as the comics would put it) and more than enough sadness, hilarity and silliness for two or three novels. I do not want to make it seem as if the book is written as a parody or a spoof - far from it. Occasionally it is purely heart-breaking. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of the two or three best books I read in 2000.
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