Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

A huge number of America’s superheroes were created by Jewish New Yorkers, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an homage to these creative greats, as well as the Golden Age of Comic Books in the 1930s and 40s. Our titular heroes are the writer-artist team of Sam Clay and Josef Kavalier. Catchy though the book’s title may be, this is really the story of the latter.

By a quirk of fate, Kavalier was born in the Soviet Union, unlike the rest of his family in pre-war Czechosolvakia. As a result, he can flee the rise of Nazism, but his parents and brother cannot. Leaving them behind, Kavalier heads to New York City to stay with his cousins, Sam Clay’s family. One thought burns in the back of Kavalier’s mind. How can he rescue the rest of his family and save them from the Nazi death camps?

Sam Clay, meanwhile, is fascinated by this lean, desperate, young European. When he discovers that Kavalier is also an escape artist in the style of Houdini, Clay is inspired to create the comic book character that will make their name: The Escapist. (Interestingly, the real-life comic book artist Jim Steranko was also an escape artist before he made a living from his pencil and brush).

The Escapist makes their name but not their fortune, because of course the two gauche young creatives get ripped off by their employers in the same way as their real life homologues did. The businessmen who exploit them are rather crudely drawn stereotypes, but their drunken editor is always a delight with his pithy, if bitter, advice on how to survive in the publishing business.

Chabon is a stylish writer who loves metaphor, although this can get a bit draining over the course of this giant novel. How many times do we need to hear his poetic sketches of the gloomy skies over New York? However, when he does hit the bullseye, there are shades of F. Scott Fitzgerald in his work:

There was a muffled groan and then the cloud of men around her seemed to dissolve. She took no notice. She inclined toward Joe and peered up, curving her hand around his and the flame of the match. Her eyes shone, an indeterminate colour between champagne and the green of a dollar.

However important they are as a part of American culture, comic books are also utterly ridiculous, and this gives Chabon ample opportunity to add some great comic writing to the mix:

Sammy handed him the sheet of Bristol board with the character design for Luna Moth … It was a pinup. A woman with the legs of Dolores Del Rio, black witchy hair, and breasts each the size of her head. Her face was long, her chin pointed, and her mouth a bright red hyphen, downturned at one corner in a saucy little smirk. The pair of furry antennae hung at playful angles, as if tasting the viewer’s desire.

There are so many Second World War era films, books and movies around at the moment that we’re all suffering from a seventy-year delayed overkill. Yet The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is so original and fascinating that it feels like it inhabits another world from all those Churchill biopics that are clogging the multiplexes.

It is a wonderful book, even for people who are not comic fans. I knew very little myself about the Golden Age characters and creators that make up the background of this story. The book is so good that I am now going to pick up Chabon’s most famous novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. In the meantime, don’t let this one escape you!