Review The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, Winner of The Pulitzer Prize

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.

 

 

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