The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon – 2000)

It’s not often that I read Pulitzer winning novels, but I was thrilled to hear that such a distinguished accolade has been bestowed upon a novel featuring a story about ‘golden age’ comic creators. But Kavalier and Clay is so much more than that. It’s the story of flight from Jewish persecution in Europe at the beginning of WWII. It’s the story of doing everything one can to save other family members from tyranny. It’s about being an immigrant in 1930’s New York. All these facets are tied in with the creation by two young cousins of a comic character, The Escapist, that takes the comic world by storm bringing fame and fortune to the creators as they deal with their own personal demons.

We begin with young Joe Kavalier in Czechoslovakia being mentored by an aging master locksmith and magician. When his mentor is tasked to secretly ship a Golem statue out of the country, Joe seizes the opportunity to escape the deteriorating conditions for Jews by putting himself in the coffin used to transport the Golem. His journey ends when he makes his way to relatives in New York. But once there, he begins a new adventure.

Upon arriving in the middle of the night, he is immediately thrown into a room to be shared with his young cousin, Sam Clay, who dreams of drawing and writing comics. Sam soon finds out that Joe is a far more talented artist and he harnesses Joe’s skills with his own writing skills and the two quickly become comic sensations as their super hero character, The Escapist, takes the burgeoning comic craze by storm.

Joe’s success however does nothing to alleviate the pains of having left his family behind and failing to secure their escape back home despite many attempts to aid them, especially his little brother Thomas. Joe’s anguish grows as the years roll by and receiving ever worsening bad news from back home. But when Joe falls in love and marries Rosa, an artistic society girl, he is reinvigorated and with her help makes plans for a daring escape for Thomas and a group of other children. When this plan fails, it pushes Joe to the brink.

All this time, Sam builds upon the success of The Escapist and creates more characters as he climbs and then falls in the comic biz. His demon is accepting his sexual orientation despite all the obvious signals and natural tendencies.

Joe’s breakdown and leads him to disappear without a word to his friends and wife and upon enlisting in the services, he finds himself in desolate Antarctica for yet another real life adventure. The Escapist is not only the character Joe and Sam create. It is Joe himself as his life foibles drive him to shun not just Sammy and Rosa, but everyone, eventually becoming a recluse in the Empire State building.

The novel oozes with the rich ambiance of not only NY in it’s heyday, but also with the infusion of marvelous historic characters like Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and other loosely veiled real people who figured prominently in the early days of the comic industry. It is a masterpiece period story.

A compelling read.

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