The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Copyright 2000. Action and Adventure. ISBN 9781841154930.
19-year-old escape artist Joe Kavalier flees World War II Prague in 1939 and ends up at the house of his cousin, Sammy Klayman, in New York. Sammy is a writer for a novelty company that’s trying to break into comics after observing the success of Superman.
When Sammy finds out about Joe’s incredible drawing talent, he quickly gets Joe a job illustrating for the company he works for. It’s not too long before Sammy takes the name Sam Clay and begins writing the plots for a series of comic books, to be illustrated by Joe. So begins the adventures of their trademark superhero, The Escapist, and the incredible story of the men behind the pages.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay deals with discovering your identity, finding acceptance, life in the comic book industry, life in the war, and the peaks and trenches of life in the real world. Neither fast-paced nor slow, it takes you through the myriad storylines with ease, showing you not only what happens to the main characters, but the effect they have on the events surrounding them.
Kavalier & Clay is written in alternating third-person perspective, mostly focusing on the quiet and enigmatic Joe Kavalier and the inspired and aspiring writer Sam Clay, and the story spans out over the timeline of the Golden Age of Comics (from Superman to the Kefauver Senate Hearings). This makes it a bit confusing, as it can be hard to tell whether a few hours have passed between transitions, or a few years.
Michael Chabon has a very elegant, flowing writing style that moves from reverent to satirical, from vulgar to artfully coy, with minimal bumpiness (although this sometimes results in long, hard-to-follow sentences). He makes liberal use of clever diction and subtle (and not-so-subtle) jokes throughout the text, bringing each character to life in their own way. His insight into the comic books industry is also fascinating, and not to be missed if you’re interested in that subject at all.
Chabon sets up the scenes skillfully, painting New York evenings so real you almost think you can smell the hot peanuts, or hear the subway underfoot.
One of the things that make Chabon’s writing great is his characterization abilities. All of his characters, even the often-overlooked side characters, have depth and distinct personalities.
Sam Clay is somewhat idealistic, opportunistic, and uncertain, dealing with several issues about who he is and what he’s doing. He is loyal to his cousin, a creative visionary, and determined to be successful. During the course of the book, his strengths and weaknesses are tested continually, forcing him to realize parts of himself and decide what’s worth holding on to.
Joe Kavalier is the quiet, thoughtful, tortured artist, illustrator of Kavalier and Clay’s The Escapist, talented in sleight-of-hand and literal and figurative escapism. In a constant state of worry for his family left behind in Prague, he is attracted to the sense of justice provided by his and Clay’s brainchild, but doesn’t know how to pursue it in a healthy manner. He finds a comforting muse in the bohemian Rosa Saks, and she in him, and together they attempt to control their inner demons.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a story with a fascinating perspective on the personal and societal implications of the Golden Age of comics, and repeatedly asks the ages-old question, “What is a hero?” 4 ½ out of 5 stars.