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Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

A story about comic books and escapism and the edge of World War II but, above all, a sad yet joyous story of finding out who you are. Sam Klayman (later Sam Clay) is an American Jew of Czech origin, born and in living in Brooklyn and fascinated by comic books. Josef (Joe) Kavalier is born in Prague to a well-to-do family. He has a younger brother, Thomas, to whom he is very attached. His indulgent parents let him learn escapology and magic, two talents he puts to good use. Indeed, he tries to do a Houdini impersonation and almost kills himself.

However the Nazis are coming and, as he was the only one born in Ukraine, only he is allowed to enter the United States. His family save all their money to get him tickets and to bribe the German authorities to get him permits. However, they are too late as the rules change (unbeknownst to him) the day he is to leave. However, with the help of his friend and former teacher, he is able to escape to Vilnius in the coffin of the Golem, from where he makes his way (the long way round) to Brooklyn and the Klaymans.

Almost from day one, Sam and Joe decide to go into comic books. Sam works for Empire Novelties and Mr. Anapol. Mr. Anapol and his partner (and brother-in-law) realise that the future is in comic books and buy up (very cheaply) the rights to a character, created by Sam and Joe, called the Escapist, a sort of Superman character, who can escape from anything and whose specialty is beating up Nazis. Naturally, it is very successful and they make a lot of money (though Anapol and his partner make a lot more).

A lot of the story is Joe’s guilt about his family and his very understandable antipathy to the Nazis. He tries to get his family out of Czechoslovakia and encounters considerable difficulty. Finally, Thomas, his brother, does get out but his ship is sunk by a U-Boat. One sub-plot has Joe taking on any Germans he encounters in New York and nearly getting killed more than once. He does meet Rosa, with whom he falls in love. (Sam, meanwhile, has realised he is gay and falls in love with Tracy Bacon, who plays the Escapist in a radio serial.) Much of the story is also about Chabon’s obvious love for comic books and the whole comic book industry. Indeed, several real comic books people are introduced, including the legendary Stan Lee.

The plot takes an abrupt turn when Joe learns of Thomas’ death. He abandons Rosa (who is pregnant, though he does not know it) and joins the Navy, where he is sent to serve on Greenland and where he finally kills his one and only German. However, he does not open any of the letters he receives from Rosa, who finally marries Sam. After the war, he disappears and finally reveals himself to Thomas, his and Rosa’s son (though Thomas thinks that Sam is his father). All this time he has been living (illegally) in the Empire State Building, writing a mammoth Golem comic story. All is revealed when, at Thomas’ suggestions, he tries a stunt involving throwing himself off the Empire State Building, held up only by rubber bands. The stunt fails but he survives and is reunited with Rosa and Sam and his true identity is revealed to his son.

The book is far more complicated than this short summary can indicate. It is full of humour and passion (and compassion) and intelligence and guilt and sorrow. It may be the last great American novel of the twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Random House