Kavalier & Clay is one of those books that takes your breath away and compels you to keep turning the pages. It’s often described as an epic, and it’s just that, spanning some three decades in the lives of its two central characters, cousins related by blood, a passion for their craft, and a beautiful woman named Rosa who has a profound impact on them both.
I loved all 639 pages of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Reading it transported me to a different time and place, where I spent time with a new group of people, and totally escaped into a great story. The word escape is particularly appropriate to use when talking about this book, since it centers on two cousins who create The Escapist, a comic book sensation in the 1940s.
Joe, the Kavalier of the duo, is a Jewish refugee from Prague who’s the only member of his family to escape before the Nazi horror descends. Having studied with a master illusionist, Joe has many unusual talents in his arsenal by the time he’s recruited to help smuggle the Jewish icon The Golem, along with himself, out of the country. A journey around the world lands him in Brooklyn, NY, at the home of his aunt. A teenage Sammy Klayman (soon to be known as Sam Clay) first meets his cousin in the wee hours one night in 1939 when his mother wakes him from sleep, shoves him to the far side of the bed, and dumps his cousin into his life. The creative team of Kavalier and Clay is born.
Together, with Joe’s talent as an artist and Sammy’s story telling ability, the two become phenoms in the pop art world. They create a character rivaling Superman in popularity which Joe uses to fight his own war against the Nazi’s, channeling his anger and frustration at being unable to get his parents and younger brother out of harms way into his art. Sammy carries demons of his own, including scars from his relationship with his father, a side-show strongman who abandoned him.
Kavalier and Clay’s adventures take them from Prague to the Big Apple to Antarctica, from the period before WWII, when they knew their greatest success, to the 1950s, when Cold War politics cracked down on degenerate comic books and the degenerate men who made them.
Through the lives of his characters author Michael Chabon demonstrates how art and creativity can be both a saving grace and a destructive force. Love and loss permeate the story; each man has shadows of the past lurking over him and informing the stories they create together. So strong is the sense of time, place and character, that I came to believe these two really occupied a place in the pantheon of comic book giants, actually influencing the stories and artists that followed in their footsteps. Joe Kavalier is the real star of the story; he’s a character that jumps off the page and sticks in your mind long after the book is finished and placed back on the shelf.
This book is much more than the tale of two guys who create a comic super hero—way more. It’s an adventure, a romance, and a psychological mystery rolled into one great story. And the writing—oh man, the writing. This book mesmerized me as much with the language as it did with the story. Chabon has a real gift for character description and dialog. I really enjoy his style and the way in which he introduced new characters—taking a side-trip flashback, for a paragraph or an entire chapter, to give the back story of a character, neatly segueing into the “current” moment in a way that sums up the character beautifully with an economy of words.
This book introduced me to a great character, Joe Kavalier, and an outstanding writer, Michael Chabon, whose work I look forward to following.