Set to the backdrop of Nazi occupation of Europe and the exploding popularity of pulp trash, an art form we now celebrate as the holy comic book, is the tale of a lonely Jewish son estranged from his family and looking to make amends here in his new home of America. His name is Joe Kavalier and he’s escaped the Holocaust, traveling from Prague in a coffin containing a Golem of Jewish lore, barely slipping by the Third Reich while his parents and beloved brother behind.
And that’s just the first 40 pages.
Written like a daring comic from the nostalgic period dubbed the Golden Age, Joe is a Jew with a talent for magic and drawing. Trained under the tutelage of master magician Bernard Kornblum, Joe has a knack for escaping from impossible situations. As a fellow admirer of his ultimate hero Houdini, Joe treats his art exactly like his does his trade.
On the whim of his cousin Sammy Clay, a fellow artist and writer, Joe helps create the fictional comic book superhero The Escapist, a Superman knockoff that starts out as a way for Joe to pour all of his grief and fantasy of revenge against Hitler into his work. But what starts out as a form of displacement of his own angst soon becomes a national bestseller, earning both men fame and fortune as they help little boys realize their dreams of being the good guy for the brief 20 or so pages that such a magazine provides for the ever elusive dime.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is written as a serialized novel, begging to read with the speed that it takes to whip thru a pulp magazine, enticing the reader into the lives of the cousins, that leads them from neighborhood Jews to men on the brink of having it all. At a hefty 600 plus pages, the novel reads surprisingly swift, a reflection of its own pulp roots that comes off as nothing more than escapist drama but lands with a literary two count, stirring our own memories of history both gone and forgotten, of a time when superheroes were considered nothing but silly business for adolescents and when a person could make a name for himself with just the right attitude and ambition.
Naturally, the exterior of the novel, the copy I read was the hardcover edition, reflects this pulp origins, being adorned with a illustration that is supposed to be the cover of the first Escapist comic. It depicts The Escapist punching a Hitler knockoff square on the jaw, no doubt inspired by the famous Captain America cover that showed a similar situation. And while Michael Chabon’s book was blessed with the fame that winning a Pulitzer Prize, the novel openly declares its love for the ancient form of art that was the comic book, itself both a love letter and praise for a genre often looked at with dubious eyes and usually adorned with backhanded compliments, none more given than by myself.
Interestingly enough, the characters in the novel seem to hold the same estimation of the work they are creating, treating it as nothing more than silly trash that pays the bills. Sam in particular seems especially disdainful of his own work, seeing the comic book as merely something of a get rich quick scheme.
While Sam’s adventures are full of their own magic and charm, his story revolving around a homosexual relationship with an actor portraying The Escapist on a radio drama, the bulk of the novel is devoted to Joe, who at first finds refuge in America but after a tragic turn of events find himself instead fueled by hate and revenge.
However, much of the page turning propulsion that graces the boy’s origins begins to lose its steam as Chabon spends the last third of the novel on more earthly matters. Joe leaves behind a pregnant girlfriend, a much sidelined Rosa, to play out his own fantasy as war hero, enlisting in the Navy and ending up stranded in an arctic tundra, never seeing a lick of action aside from a brush in with an innocent German engineer. When he returns after years of solitude and hiding, having escaped a shipwreck and family death, he discovers that Sam has assumed the responsibility of the husband for the woman as father for Joe’s child. The family drama bookends the novel, shifting the focus away from Joe and to his child Thomas, who has his own adventure skipping school and meeting his real dad.
Unfortunately, these last chapters feel dull and far more heavy handed than the beginning of the novel, mostly feeling weighed down not just by the lackluster tale of a kid who seems to be shoehorned in the final chapters but as well by the disillusionment of the 1950s, where families found themselves locked into the humdrum existence of televisions and refrigerators after the excitement of defeating Hitler and his army.
It’s here that both Sammy and Joe see their own creation destroyed by a lawsuit brought on by the company owning the rights to Superman as well as a the Senate Committee on Juvenile Delinquency own investigation into the alleged homoerotic subtext of superheros and their boy sidekicks, leaving Sammy outed on National television. They’re left with a legacy that will be all but forgotten for the next 50 or so years, never to see how the fruit of their labors would go on to experience its own Renaissance thru the form of serialized television and mega Hollywood blockbusters.
Yet despite the quiet endings that our heros endure, we find them ultimately left with the very things they were seeking in the first place. For it is thru art that we find our form of escape of the torture that can be reality. And while The Escapist is destined to be doomed by time and waning interest, Sam and Joe live on in the hearts of men who grew up idolizing those past relics, worshiping both comics and their creators as their own hero’s during a time of generation cynicism and teenage angst that would become the of the X Generation.
Kavalier and Klay is both light and heavy, a historical genre tale of both adventure and romance, presented thru the form of pulp but containing enough literary weight to seemingly elevate its status to “important” literature, at least as far as popular opinions matter.
I found myself both entertained and amused while reading, but felt the ending was a cop out, shifting the focus away from Joe and Sammy’s astounding success to a romance between two characters who never really seemed to be that much in love in the first place. Rosa in particular seems to take on a more prominent role in the last parts of the novel, but a nagging dissatisfaction crept into my mind as I finished the book, feeling perhaps the last chapter was more of a pretty bow being tied onto what was otherwise a thrilling and highly compelling read.