The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction AND the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2001 as well as a number of other awards. Forgotten in my mountainous pile of to-reads, it was pulled to the front by my reliable book club. This historical and literary fiction begins on the eve of World War II in New York City and involves a pair of Jewish cousins, the burgeoning comic book business, incredible talent and a brilliant idea, love, and heartbreak. Random House | September, 2000 | Hardcover | 639 pp
The family of Joe Kavalier sold most of their possessions to get him out of Czechoslovakia and on his way to America. The Jews were being stripped of everything and Joe’s parents had the foresight to know that Joe’s escape was imperative. When his papers failed at the border, he knew he couldn’t go back home – not after they sold everything for him. With help from his teacher in the art of escape and magic, he was smuggled out along with a valuable Jewish golem. He eventually made it to New York City and moved in with his American cousin’s family, the Klaymans.
Sammy Klayman took to his cousin immediately and when he saw how wonderfully Joe could draw (Joe had been classically trained at the University of Prague), Sammy comes up with a plan. The comic book business was blowing up and everyone was looking for a new Superman. Sammy’s boss, a seller of cheap novelties, paid a small fortune to advertise on the backs of these graphic novels. With help from an associate in the publishing business, Sammy and Joe persuaded his boss to let them come up with an idea for a new comic, one they would all own. Advertising would be free.
Empire Comics was born and with it, the smash hit The Escapist was a million dollar boon. It was an idea that was at first frowned upon by the owners. The cover showed Hitler being punched in the face by the new superhero The Escapist, and the US was not yet at war with Germany. But Joe and Sammy were insistent – it was their way or no way. The bossman finally went with it and as the duo suspected, it was a hit. Kids across the nation were grabbing up copies and defeating Nazis in their dreams.
The partnership of Kavalier & Clay (Sam changed his name from Klayman to Clay) dominated the bylines and although Empire Comics made most of the money from their genius, the young men who never had much were now socking away thousands each week – an exorbitant amount in the years following the Great Depression. Their friendship was steadfast and together, it seemed, they could do anything. Joe fell in love with a Jewish artist and socialite, and Sam was forced to hide his homosexuality. When things seemed to be at their best, and Joe had arranged passage for his little brother to come to America, the ball drops and those good things come to an end, as all good things must.
The character of Joe Kavalier is, on one hand, incredibly unique, and on the other – oddly believable. He grew up in an unorthodox Jewish family in Czechoslovakia and never really practiced the religion. But he did take a liking to the Jewish mysticism and magic. He was an educated man, trained in the arts at a prestigious school. Inspired by Houdini, what he really enjoyed was magic. His parents decided to pay for his lessons from a local and highly praised escape artist. And so Joe, the new immigrant in America with instant success and an alluring accent, makes his rounds in fashionable social circles with his sleight-of-hand tricks and – well, saving the life of Salvador Dali at a party with his lock-picking abilities didn’t hurt his reputation.
Sam Clay is American born and never had the sense of family that Joe has. His father left when he was a child. Nearly crippled by polio, his legs are thin and wobbly and he isn’t as good with art as his cousin. But he does love to tell a story. As the men grow older and Sam comes to realize that he is a “fairy” in an era when people were arrested for homosexuality, it was a difficult life. But he is surrounded by people who love him.
The character of The Escapist combines a little bit of Sam and a little bit of Joe, naturally. The alter ego’s legs are weak and he has red hair – a trait from Joe’s mentor. And of course, he is an escape artist (Joe’s specialty) and aims to fight Nazis and Hitler, and free everyone who has been oppressed. It’s a Jewish and American dream comic. Of course, this is historical fiction and The Escapist never was. But the character was so alluring that The Escapist comic was actually made, inspired by this book.
The writing style threw me off a bit with its back and forths suddenly thrown in on a whim. Although linear in general, background information and future information (oftentimes unnecessary) were thrown in at random points.
In the end, this is incredible literary fiction with enduring characters I will never forget. The Escapist comes to life in a number of ways in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon