It is often said that great works are not appreciated until after the artist’s time. Michael Chabon, the Jewish-American author–and winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction–might beg to differ. His ability to blur genre lines and blend popular science fiction with highbrow literature has earned him the status of “one of the most celebrated writers of his generation.” “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”—a fast-paced, coming-of-age tale of two boys in New York City at the dawn of World War II—is considered by many to be his “magnum opus.”
The story revolves around Sammy Klayman, a native New Yorker, and his recently emigrated, Czech-cousin, Joseph Kavalier. Growing up in Czechoslovakia, Joe studied magic and was always fascinated with the art of escape. Upon arriving in the city, Sammy immediately introduces Joe to his “gang” of likeminded, Jewish comic book “nerds” who, like Sammy, all aspire to be comic book writers and illustrators. Joe takes an immediate liking to the exciting, colorful artwork and reveals a hidden, astounding talent for illustration. The cousins team up on a character called “The Escapist,” and Joe’s passion for magic and illusions is embedded throughout the series. Soon the up-and-coming Empire Comics takes notice of the rising stars and hires the pair. All the while, Joe is doing anything in his power to help his family escape Europe. He vigorously writes letters and meets with government bureaucrats who all sympathize with the young, foreign boy but end up being of no help. As the drums of war begin to sound, and the fate of Joe’s family becomes less clear, the artwork in “The Escapist” takes a darker and more sinister turn.
Chabon brilliantly situates his characters in a significant moment in both American and literary history. While Sammy and Joe are entirely fictional, the blooming of the comic book industry in concurrence with the onset of World War II was very real. It also left a plethora of easily accessible, and entertaining literature on nationalism and patriotism as reflected in popular art and fiction. Joe has a personal agenda when he carefully crafts explosive, gory scenes depicting “The Escapist” taking on Hitler and the entire Third Reich. Likewise, the creators of Superman and Captain America were fighting a war of ideas in addition to putting out fast-paced, action-packed stories for children.
The novel traces the lives of the two cousins over decades, covering all of their love interests, accomplishments and travels. The story has a beautiful symmetry that leaves no loose end untied and yet the reader is still yearning for more. Chabon audaciously intertwines Jewish folklore, magic, and history, and what is produced in that eclectic blender is both utterly unique and truly a masterpiece.
Perry Fein is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine and lives in Santa Cruz.