February Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon follows Jewish cousins Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier through the twists and turns of their life as they create an iconic superhero during the golden age of comic books. The book is a sprawling adventure that effortlessly weaves historical facts and captivating fiction. It leaves one with a deep attachment to both the characters and their surroundings that makes it hard to remember that Kavalier and Clay were not actually comic book creators in the 1940s, but rather a fiction of Chabon’s imagination and inventive writing.

Kavalier and Clay begins the night the two boys meet. Eighteen-year-old Josef Kavalier, a talented artist with a fascination for magic and escapes, shows up in Sam Clay’s, ne Klayman, bedroom in the middle of the night after having fled from Nazi-occupied Prague. The first section of the book details Joe’s life in Prague and how he managed to escape with the help of his old magic teacher, Bernard Kornblum, and a mysterious clay giant known as the Prague Golem. This is the first of many instances throughout the book where the golem is referenced and tied into the idea of freedom.

When he is introduced, Sam Clay is a 17-year-old comic book enthusiast living with his mother in Brooklyn, New York. He works for in the stockroom of the Empire Novelty Company but has big dreams of becoming a comic book creator. Sam and Joe bond quickly after Sam discovers Joe’s natural talent for drawing. On Joe’s first day in New York, Sam enlists him to help with Sam’s plan of breaking into the comic book world, promising Joe that this will bring them “big money.” The two cousins propose that Sam’s boss, Sheldon Anapol, create his own line of comics to save on advertising. Anapol agrees and gives the boys three days to come up with an idea.

Through a series of mishaps, procrastination, and eventual breakthroughs, Sam and Joe create the Escapist, a superhero who, through the power of a magic key, can escape from anything and travel the world, freeing the oppressed and fighting Nazis. The hero embodies everything that Joe and Sam long to embody at that time in their lives. Joe uses the Escapist and his art to take out Nazis and free people, like his family, still stuck under Hitler’s reign. Sam uses the Escapist to free himself from his mundane life and express himself in ways he cannot outside of comic books.

As their creation takes off, Joe and Sam become an inseparable team, with Sam writing and Joe handling the illustrations. The prosperity in the comic world sets off a chain of events that unfold over the rest of the novel. As the boys’ success continues, Chabon is careful to keep the underlying feeling of tragedy that accompanies the two Jewish boys living during World War II. Joe is constantly trying to come up with a plan to get his family out of Prague and does not know how to feel happiness and freedom without guilt. Despite success in the comic book world, Sam still struggles to find happiness in his personal life.

Striding upon the fine line between the lightness of the comic book world and the tragedy of the characters’ personal lives is where Chabon shines. It makes Joe and Sam feel like real, three-dimensional people that the reader can to root for. When Joe falls for Rosa Saks, a beautiful, sharp-witted artist, and finds a way to rescue his brother, the reader rejoices in his happiness. One feels every joyful moment and heartbreak of Sam’s relationship with Tracy Bacon, a charismatic actor that plays the Escapist on the radio, and his journey as a gay man in the 1940s. The reader follows the twists and turns of the characters’ success so closely, that when it all falls apart it feels as though it is our life crumbling along with Joe and Sam’s.

Although Chabon’s prose is not flawless—the writing can sometimes feel wandering and certain details seem unnecessary—he succeeds in breathing life into his characters and their surroundings in a beautiful and unique way. Chabon writes Joe and Sam so effortlessly into the history of the golden age of comic books that it’s hard to remember that they aren’t actually real, that the Escapist does not exist somewhere: boxes of copies lying dusty and forgotten in someone’s basement. One spends so much time with these characters that their failures and triumphs feel like our own, and once the reader surfaces from the depths of Chabon’s writing, it’s hard to tell where Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier stop, and the real world begins. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay should be read at least once but is the kind of book that deserves to be read over and over again.

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