The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the epic tale of fifteen years in the lives of Joe and Sam, boy geniuses and would-be heroes.  Their story is interlaced with quirky period detail: references to music, people, sporting events and brand-names recreate the atmosphere of the 1940s.  Celebrities, from movie stars to first ladies, grace the pages with cameo appearances.  Frenetic, glamorous New York, and the grandeur and omnipresence of the Empire State building, is the centre of the action.  But as we travel back and forth through time, we’re also transported to the claustrophobia of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, the inhospitable ice-scape of Alaska, and the genteel suburbia of Long Island’s south shore. 

New York is a place of magic.  The comic book superhero has just been born, and is already enjoying a golden age.  Young men with limited prospects but big imaginations are suddenly finding that anything is possible.  Sam and Joe are two such men. As they spring from the page they are instantly human, believable, likeable, courageous, and fragile.  Through a combination of talent, initiative and bravado, they turn themselves from hard-luck nobodies into rising stars.  Success comes easily – but proves to be insubstantial.  This is 1940 after all, and while it’s wonderful to make lots of money creating top-selling comic books, it does nothing to stave off the impending doom enveloping Europe and the Kavalier family in Prague. 

Escape and transformation are the novel's central themes – and the obsessive drivers of Joe and Sam’s dreams and ambitions.  Joe is plagued by guilt and a sense of impotence – he has been saved while his family has not, and with every day that passes his chances of securing their escape are diminished.  As he battles against the inevitable, he is driven to increasingly desperate acts.  Escapistry has always been a core component of his life.  Even as a small child, he is "imprisoned by invisible chains," always struggling for recognition, and pushing too fast and too far.  His erstwhile mentor, Kornblum, feared that his "final feat of auto-liberation was all too foreseeable."  Now, wrenched from his home and driven by grief, rage, and desperation, Joe tangles with catastrophe at several points in the novel.  More than once he places himself in snatching distance of death, but life hangs on to him, whether he wishes it or not.  For a brief while it seems that Rosa’s love might save him from his despair and offer him hope and safety. But tragedy intervenes, and Joe escapes the temptation of happiness, choosing exile and isolation instead. 

Sammy cherishes his own dreams of escape.  His "caterpillar schemes" are directed at making enough money to transform his life, and the lives of those he cares about, into something much grander and more impressive.  His attempts to liberate himself - from poverty, conventionality and mediocrity - meet with mixed fortune.  He achieves wealth and fame, and all the outward trappings of success, at least for a short while.  But he remains firmly tied by the bonds of prejudice.  Apart from his first and only brief, bright love affair, he refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality.  He chooses instead a half-life, in which he and Rosa unite in their mutual loss of Joe.  It’s a devastating choice, and the magnitude of his loss becomes slowly apparent to him over time.  Only right at the end of the novel, following Joe's unexpected and dramatic reappearance, does Sam finally find the courage to explore who he really is.

Chabon provides the reader with small clues and premonitions throughout the story.  From the first page of the novel, we know that Joe and Sam are going to take the comic world by storm and make a name for themselves.  But just when Joe and Rosa’s happiness seems to be secured we are told, with devastating yet lyrical clarity, that it’s all about to fall apart – and we read the remainder of the chapter with a sense of culminating horror as it does exactly that.  James Love’s journal entries, concerning events about to unfold, create a similarly ominous effect.  By jumping forward a little in time before going back to the critical moments of the story, Chabon builds our sense of suspense and dread, and renders events much more dramatically.    

Thankfully Chabon is ultimately kind, to his characters who have been through so much, and to the reader who so desperately wants them to re-discover happiness and set their past sorrows to rights.  He acknowledges that life is complicated and messy and never turns out quite as planned, but nonetheless grants Joe, Sam and Rosa the chance to make the best of it.     

This is the kind of book that can be read again and again: the first time, in a bit of a rush, because one is desperate to know what will happen next; and then again, at a more leisurely pace, taking the time to absorb the wealth of historical detail, enjoy the highly individual secondary characters, and marvel at the beauty of Chabon's writing. 

 

Other Reviews

The New York Times: “the depth of Chabon's thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement”

Salon.com: “the rapturous, panoramic new novel”

Bookreporter.com: “one of the richest and most satisfying books you will ever read”

About.com: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an intricately researched and sweeping historical novel”