The novel begins in 1939 with the arrival of 19-year-old Josef “Joe” Kavalier as a refugee in New York City, where he comes to live with his 17-year-old cousin, Sammy Klayman. With the help of his mentor, Kornblum, Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague by hiding in a coffin. Joe leaves behind the rest of his family, including his younger brother Thomas. As the novel develops, both Joe and Sammy find their creative niches, one entrepreneurial, the other’s artistic. Beyond having a shared interest in drawing, the duo share several connections to Jewish stage magician Harry Houdini: Josef (like comics legend Jim Steranko) studied magic and escapology in Prague, which aided him in his departure from Europe; Sammy is the son of the Mighty Molecule, a strongman on the vaudeville circuit.
When Sammy discovers Joe’s artistic talent, he gets Joe a job as an illustrator for a novelty products company, Empire Novelty. Sheldon Anapol, owner of Empire, motivated to share in the recent cultural and financial success of Superman, attempts to break into the comic-book business on the creative backs of Joe and Sammy. Under the name “Sam Clay”, Sammy starts writing adventure stories with Joe illustrating them, and the two recruit several other Brooklyn teenagers to produce Amazing Midget Radio Comics (named to promote one of the company’s novelty items). The pair is at once passionate about their creation, earnestly optimistic about making money, and always nervous about the opinion of their employers.
The magazine features Sammy and Joe’s character, the Escapist, an anti-fascist superhero who combines traits of (among others) Houdini, Captain America, Batman, the Phantom, and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Escapist becomes tremendously popular, but like talent behind Superman, the writers and artists of the comic get a minimal share of their publisher’s revenue. Joe and Sammy are slow to realize that they are being exploited, as they have private concerns: Joe is trying to help his family escape from Prague and has fallen in love with the bohemian Rosa Saks, who has her own artistic aspirations; while Sammy works to find his sexual identity and seeks progress in his professional and literary career.
For many months after coming to New York, Joe’s drive to help his family shows through in his work, which remains violently anti-Nazi despite his employer’s concerns. In the meantime, he spends more and more time with Rosa, appearing as a magician in the bar mitzvahs of the children of Rosa’s father’s acquaintances, even though he sometimes feels guilty for distracting himself from fighting for his family. After multiple attempts and considerable monetary sacrifice, Joe ultimately fails to get his family to the States, his last attempt having resulted in putting his younger brother aboard a ship that was destroyed by a German U-boat. Distraught and unaware that Rosa is pregnant with his child, Joe enlists in the navy, hoping to fight the Germans. Instead, he is sent to a secluded naval base in Antarctica. After a faulty chimney fills the base with carbon monoxide, Joe emerges from this interlude the lone survivor from his station. When he makes it back to New York, he is ashamed to show his face again to Rosa and Sammy. He squats in a hideout in the Empire State Building, known only to a small circle of magician-friends.
Meanwhile, Sammy develops a romantic relationship with the radio voice of The Escapist, Tracy Bacon. Tracy’s movie-star good looks initially intimidate Sammy, but later they fall in love. When Tracy is cast as The Escapist for the film adaptation, he invites Sammy to move to Hollywood with him, an offer that Clay accepts. But later, when Tracy and Sammy go to a friend’s beach house with several other gay couples, the private dinner is raided by the local police as well as two off-duty FBI agents. All of the men at the party are arrested, except for two who hide under the dinner table, one of whom is Sammy. The FBI agents use their authority to sexually abuse Sammy and the other man. After this episode, Sammy decides that he can’t live with the constant threat of being persecuted and breaks off his relationship with Tracy. Some time after Joe leaves, Sammy marries Rosa and moves with her to the suburbs, where they raise her son Tommy in what outwardly appears to be a traditional nuclear family.
Sammy and Rosa cannot hide all their secrets from Tommy, however, who manages to take private magic lessons in the Empire State Building from Joe for the better part of a year without anyone else’s knowledge. Tommy is instrumental in finally reuniting the Kavalier and Clay duo, which works with renewed enthusiasm to find a new creative direction for comics. Joe moves into Sammy and Rosa’s house. Shortly afterwards, Sammy’s homosexuality is revealed on public television. This further complicates the attempts of Rosa, Sammy, and Joe to reconstitute a family. In the end, despite Joe and Rosa’s efforts to convince Sammy to stay, he leaves the house in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.
“It’s absolutely gosh-wow, super-colossal—smart, funny, and a continual pleasure to read.”—The Washington Post Book World
“The depth of Chabon’s thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness, and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement.”—The New York Times Book Review
“I’m not sure what the exact definition of a ‘great American novel’ is, but I’m pretty sure that Michael Chabon’s sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one.”—New York
“The themes are masterfully explored, leaving the book’s sense of humor intact and characters so tightly developed they could walk off the page.”—Newsweek
“A page-turner in the most expansive sense of the word: its gripping plot pushes readers forward. . . . Chabon is a reader’s writer, with sentences so cozy they’ll wrap you up and kiss you goodnight.”—Chicago Tribune
About the Author
Michael Chabon is the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Summerland (a novel for children), The Final Solution, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Gentlemen of the Road, as well as the short story collections A Model Worldand Werewolves in Their Youth and the essay collections Maps and Legends and Manhood for Amateurs. He is the chairman of the board of the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
Top customer reviews
With “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”, Michael Chabon weaves an epic story about the immigrant experience in American before, during and after the second World War, viewed through the lens of an industry that was largely pioneered by Jewish New Yorkers who had come to the U.S. from Europe: comic books.
The tale of Sammy Clay and his cousin, Josef Kavalier, who has just managed to escape Nazi-occupied Prague, is one of boot-strapping success, but also one of tragedy, repression, lost love, and broken hearts. It is, however, in the end, about redemption, being true to one’s self, and second chances.
Chabon writes with his usual inimitable style, creating a unique vision of mid-century New York City, populated with fantastic characters almost as big as the larger-than-life four-color heroes and heroines they create. We see Sammy’s greatest dreams realized, his hopes for true love crushed, the precarious balance he finds in later years, and finally, his one last attempt at self-reinvention in a life characterized by little else. We watch Joe escape the clutches of true evil, but agonize when he loses nearly everything, until he slowly reconstructs himself as the man he has always wanted to be. And we see the two cousins, lives intertwined inexorably, support each other, help each other, and ultimately, act as the source of the other’s salvation.
There are few writers of Chabon’s talent and skill working today, and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is one of his best.
It was so beautiful and adventurous and human and sad and happy and wondrous that, over the course of a month, it lifted me out of the darkness. I rationed it to one chapter a day, which I read on the subway on my way to the office. I looked so forward to it. It’s one of those books I found myself thinking about when I wasn’t reading it, counting the hours until my special half hour on the subway.
I feel like the subject matter mentioned out of context might turn some people off (mostly women): it centralizes around the two jewish boys who created the comic book “The Escapist” (a metaphor for the “Superman” comic) in bustling New York City during and after World War II, a time when America needed a hero. I promise you, though, the characters, the tone, the locations and the deeply human undertones transcend the book’s logline. It’s really about love, religion, overcoming deep adversity (including nazis, heartbreak and profound loss), loyalty, friendship, death-defying escape acts and edge-of-your-seat excitement and adventure. The word “wondrous” really does capture the feeling the book left me with – a sense of childlike wonder and heart rending emotion simultaneously. It captures the excitement of the time so well that it made me feel I was part of something larger, just by reading it.
I hope you’ll treat yourself to this (pulitzer winning) epic of human proportions. Regardless of your sex, religion, race or creed, this book has something amazing to give you. It has stuck with me for over ten years and I can’t wait to read it again.