The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 639 pages, 2000

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: I avoided it for a while, despite the Pulitzer Prize, because it was about comic books, but the continuing praise from unexpected sources eventually drew me in.

Synopsis: Escaping from the Holocaust in Europe, Joe Kavalier lands on the doorstep of his American cousin, Sam Clay, where they form an immediate alliance between Joe’s drawing skills and Sam’s incredible story-telling abilities and begin to produce some of America’s first comic books. The comic books become symbolic of the personal struggles of the two young men, with the Holocaust and Joe’s struggle to save his remaining family from Hitler becoming a large part of America’s comic book empire.

Why you should read this book: Chabon has taken the comic book, an often derided genre, and produced an eye-opening, stunning literary accomplishment that explores the origins of comics and superheroes. The excitement of feverish creation is captured brilliantly on the page, as are the lives of the characters that bring this fictional history to life. The lives of Kavalier and Clay are as amazing as their drawn superheroes, perhaps moreso, because real life doesn’t guarantee good winning out over evil.

Why you should avoid this book: This is a big book (600+ pages), so make sure you have large chunks of time set aside to read it in order to keep the flow of the story going. It does read quickly for such a large book, though, as Chabon has excellent pacing skills.

Opening paragraph:

In later years, holding forth an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest invention, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. ‘To me, Clark Kent in a phone book and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,’ he would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angouleme or to the editor of The Comics Journal. ‘You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in. Houdini’s first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called “Metamorphosis.” It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation.’ The truth was that, as a kid, Sammy had only a casual interest, at best, in Harry Houdini and his legendary feats; his great heroes were Nikola Tesla, Louis Pasteur, and Jack London. Yet his account of his role – of the role of his own imagination – in the Escapist’s birth, like all of his best fabulations, rang true. His dreams had always been Houdiniesque: they were the dreams of a pupa struggling in his blind cocoon, mad for a taste of light and air.

Fabulous quotes:

They had been walking for hours, in and out of the streetlights, through intermittent rainfall, heedless, smoking and talking until their throats were sore. At last they seemed to run out of things to say and turned wordlessly for home, carrying the idea between them, walking along the trembling hem of reality that separated New York City from Empire City. It was late; they were hungry and tired and had smoked their last cigarette.
‘What?’ Sammy said. ‘What are you thinking?’

‘I wish he was real,’ said Joe suddenly ashamed of himself. Here he was, free in a way his family could only dream of, and what was he doing with his freedom? Walking around and talking and making up a lot of nonsense about someone who could liberate no one and nothing but smudgy black marks on a piece of cheap paper. What was the point of it? Of what use was walking and talking and smoking cigarettes?

Joe Kavalier looked down at his feet, where a pair of metal cuffs linked his left ankle, in a gray sock with white and burgundy clocks, to one of the legs of his table. ‘I was not wanting to be interrupted, you know?’ He tap-tap-tapped the end of his pencil against the piece of board. ‘So many little boxes to fill.’

‘Yes, all right, that’s very admirable, son,’ Smith said, ‘but for gosh sakes, how much drawing will you be able to do when your arm is lying down on Thirty-third Street?’

Also recommended: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier; The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; Swift as Desire by Laura Esquivel; Peace Like a Rivier by Leif Enger.

Also by this author: Yiddish Policemen’s Union; Werewolves in Their Youth; Wonder Boys; A Model World and Other Stories; The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; Summerland; The Final Solution: A Story of Detection; Mcsweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

Author’s website:

Awards: Pulitzer Prize: winner, 2001; PEN/Faulkner Award: shortlist, 2001

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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