Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Publishing Date: 2000
Number of Pages: 684
A “towering, swash-buckling thrill of a book” (Newsweek), hailed as Chabon’s “magnus opus” (The New York Review of Books), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a triumph of originality, imagination, and storytelling. in New York City, 1939, a young escape artist named Joe Kavalier arrives on the doorstep of his cousin, Sammy Clay. America is happily in thrall to the Golden Age of comic books, and in a distant corner of Brooklyn, Sammy is looking for a way to cash in on the craze. He finds the ideal partner in the aloof, artistically gifted Joe, and together they embark on an adventure that takes them deep in to the heart of old-fashioned American ambition. From their shared fears, dreams, and desires, they spin comic book tales of the heroic Escapist and the beautiful Luna Moth. Climbing from the streets of Brooklyn to the top of the Empire State Building, Joe and Sammy carve out lives, and careers, as vivid as cyan and magenta ink.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an eye-catching title but something that has never reached my consciousness until I began doing list challenges. Moreover, it is listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. This made me naturally gravitate towards Michael Chabon’s work which also won the Pulitzer Prize. These are just among the reasons why I availed myself a copy of the book and included it in My 2017 Top 20 Reading List. Before 2017 closed its curtain, I was finally able to indulge myself in what most consider as Chabon’s most stellar work.
And the reading public is right. This book is indeed spectacular.
Kavalier and Clay chronicles the adventures of Sammy Klayman and his cousin Josef “Joe” Kavalier. Kavalier arrived in New York City in 1939 after fleeing from Prague which is slowly being beaten into submission by the maelstrom that is Hitler’s army. Before fleeing, Joe learned the art of magic from Harry Houdini’s fictional mentor. Joe was able to escape an inevitable fate by a hair’s breadth, in one of the most peculiar manners. However, his manner of escape is one of the most heard of from those who were able to flee from Hitler’s occupation. Unfortunately, in exchange for his safety, Joe had to leave his family behind, including his younger brother Thomas whom he was most fond of.
In New York City, Joe and Sam forged a formidable partnership after Sam discovered Joe’s innate artistic talent – he is a great drawer. Sammy got Joe a job as an illustrator at Empire Novelty, during the time when comic books just became the vogue. Superman’s commercial success made Empire Novelty’s owner, Sheldon Anapol, interested in the comic books business.
Sam and Joe saw the opportunity and assembled their own crew. Together, they drew up the drafts of their first comic book, Amazing Midget Radio, with Sam as the main writer while Joe the main illustrator. The comic book’s hero is the Escapist who has set out to fight fascism all over the world. This met some resistance from Anapol because of its political implications but it got finally published after some changes were done. From this small start, Sam and Klay would then take control of their own destiny, making them rise from the quagmires of poverty.
At its core, The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay, is anchored on the history of the comic book business. The sheer scope of the story is astounding and I am astonished at the extent of research Chabon did to produce a work of this magnitude. Chabon was able to capture and portray the colorful history of the comic book business in an interesting manner, from the industry’s infancy to its fall from grace. Most of the story was set in what can be referred to as the Golden Age of Comics.
What made the novel more engrossing are the primary characters themselves. Kavalier and Klay’s multi-faceted personalities added complexion to the story. They are as vivid as the characters they made up, to which they have bequeathed parts of their own personas. The characters they have made up, especially on Joe’s case, are their own alter egos, through which they were able to relate their own stories. Chabon took time in developing his characters. The end product, hence, is remarkable.
In spite of its comic book theme, the story is the quintessence of the American dream. Chabon used different motifs to paint the different facets of the American life during and after the Second World War. He was able to depict the different sociological and political aspects of the era. Along with this portraiture is the novel’s fearless depiction of friendship, lust, parenting and personal obsessions and yearnings. However, I still feel that there is a disconnect between the first part of the story and the rest of it.
Kavalier and Clay is principally about artistry and creativity. It delved into the challenges that stymied the exponential growth and development of the creative and artistic world. Foremost of these challenges is the incessant interference of the corporate world and its prevailing pecuniary interests. Censorship also hindered the free-spirited art. Moreover, harsher competition brought about the questions of originality, as the commercial battle ballooned into a legal battle. Accusations of plagiarism plagued the comic book industry.
But the book’s towering achievement is the friendship Joe and Sam forged. Their loyalty to each other is endearing, especially the way they supported each other during the most challenging times. Sam is like Joe’s social conscience so that even when Joe finds himself in dire straits, Sam would always be there to save and forgive him. They were bonded by blood but they went well beyond that. Their friendship is something that I would want to have. Books about moving friendship, I admit, is my literary bias.
The novel is well-written and the prose flowed naturally. The reader gets the sense of being enmeshed into the story. The conversations and interactions among the characters were natural and free-flowing, without superficiality. Whereas it is bereft of poetry, it more than made up for its fluidity. The story is well-thought and well organized that it is a pleasure skimming through it in spite of its length.
At first, it was a challenge finding myself through the several layers of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I was a bit worried when I learned that the book is about comics, something that didn’t appeal to me. The first part was also complicated as it narrated about World War II and the Golem. Thankfully, Chabon’s clear writing, well-developed characters, and free-flowing narrative made it easier for me to appreciate it.
In spite of my reluctance, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an arresting and astounding showcase of narrative prowess. It is the right mix of artistry, trickery and magic. It is a brilliant story that kept me shuffling through the pages. All the accolades it got it totally deserved. And if you haven’t read it, there is a reason why the title began with the phrase “The Amazing”. Better pick up the book and begin reading it.
Recommended for those who like reading books with singular alignment, those who are interested in the history of comic books, those looking for well-written narratives and those who are challenged by different subjects.
Not recommended for those who are looking for light reads, those who think comic books are boring, and those who dislike reading lengthy stories.
About The Author
Born on May 24, 1963, Michael Chabon had his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published in 1988 when he was just 25 years old. His second novel, Wonder Boys, was published in 1995 which was briefly followed by two short story books. However, it wasn’t until the publication of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay did he gain international recognition. It went on to win the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. His next novel, The Final Solution (2004) didn’t receive as much attention as its predecessor.
Kavalier and Clay’s award-winning feat was followed in 2007 by The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The book won the Hugo, Sidewise, Nebula and Ignotus awards. His next works, Telegraph Avenue and Moonglow were published in 2012 and 2016, respectively. His serialized novel, Gentlemen of the Road was first published in book form in 2007.
For a year, Chabon attended Carnegie Mellon University. He then transferred to the University of Pittsburgh where he received a Bachelor of Arts in 1984. He received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine.
He married Ayelet Waldman, a fellow writer, in 1993 and they have four children. They are currently living in Berkeley California.
Credits: Author photo is by Biography.com