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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier arrives in Brooklyn in 1939 to stay with his aunt's family, and sparks are immediately struck between "Joe" (a talented draftsman) and his cousin Sammy Klayman, a hustling go-getter (and hopeful "serious writer") who dreams of success in the burgeoning new field of newspaper comic strips. The pair dream up, and draw the exploits of, such superheroes as "the Escapist" (a figure resembling "Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer," whose sources are revealed in extensive flashbacks that also detail Joe's training as a magician and escape artist) - and "Kavalier and Clay" become rich and famous. But the shadow of Hitler overpowers Joe's imagination, sending him on an odyssey of revenge (to Greenland Station as a naval technician, in a furiously imaginative sequence) and into retreat from both his celebrity and the surviving people he still loves. Meanwhile, even as the world of comics is yielding to the pressures of change and political accusation (in the form of Senator Estes Kefauver's Congressional Committee investigation), Sammy makes a parallel gesture of renunciation, continuing to live in a fragile fantasy world. The story climaxes unforgettably - and surprisingly - atop the Empire State Building, and its lengthy denouement (a virtuoso piece of sustained storytelling) ends in a gratifying resolution of the deceptions and disappearances that have become second nature (as well as heavy burdens) to Joe, and a simultaneous "unmasking" and liberation that release Sammy from the storybook world they had made together.
A tale of two magnificiently imagined characters, and a plaintive love song to (and vivid recreation of) the fractious ethnic energy of New York City a half century ago.
About Wonder Boys
"Mr. Chabon is that rare thing, an intelligent lyrical writer." —The New York Times Book Review
"The young star of American letters . . . a writer not only of rare skill and wit but of self-evident and immensely appealing generosity."
The Washington Post Book World
"Wonder Boys caught me up and carried me along like some kind of flying carpet. . . . Michael Chabon keeps us wide awake and reading." —Alan Cheuse,
All Things Considered, National Public Radio
"[A] beguiling and wickedly smart novel."
—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review
About Werewolves in Their Youth
"A loving craftsman and the author of superb, seemingly alchemically rendered sentences, Chabon has been producing pitch-perfect, at times even dazzling, fiction."
—Michael Carroll, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Japan!" he said again, reeling at the exotic Caniffian perfume that hung over the name. "What were you doing there?"
"Mostly I was suffering from the intestinal complaint," Josef Kavalier said. "and I suffer still. Particular in the night."
Sammy pondered this information for a moment, then moved a little nearer to the wall.
"Tell me, Samuel," Josef Kavalier said. "How many examples must I have in my portfolio?"
"Not Samuel. Sammy. No, call me Sam."
"What portfolio is that?"
"My portfolio of drawings. To show your employer. Sadly, I am obligated to leave behind all of my work in Prague, but I can very quickly do much more that will be frightfully good."
"To show my boss?" Sammy said, sensing in his own confusion the persistent trace of his mother's handiwork. "What are you talking about?"
"Your mother suggested that you might to help me get a job in the company where you work. I am an artist, like you."
"An artist." Again Sammy envied his cousin. This was statement he himself would never have been able to utter without lowering his fraudulent gaze to his show tops. "My mother told you I was an artist?"
"A commercial artist, yes. For the Empire Novelties Incorporated Company."
For an instant Sammy cupped the tiny flame this secondhand compliment lit within him. Then he blew it out.
"She was talking through her hat," he said.
"She was full of it."
"I'm an inventory clerk. Sometimes they let me do pasteup for an ad. Or when they add a new item to the line, I get to do the illustration. For that, they pay me two dollars per."
"Ah." Josef Kavalier let out another long breath. He still had not moved a muscle. Sammy couldn't decide if this apparent utter motionlessness was the product of unbearable tension or a marvelous calm. "She wrote a letter to my father," Josef tried. "I remember she said you create designs of superb new inventions and devices."
"She talked into her hat."
Sammy sighed, as if to suggest that this was unfortunately the case; a regretful sigh, long-suffering—-and false. No doubt, his mother writing to her brother in Prague, had believed that she was making an accurate report; it was Sammy who had been talking through his hat for the last year, embroidering, not only for her benefit but to anyone who would listen, the menial nature of his position at Empire Novelties. Sammy was briefly embarassed, not so much at being caught out and having to confess his lowly status to his cousin, as at this evidence of a flaw in the omniveillant maternal loupe. Then he wondered if his mother, far from being hoodwinked by his boasting, had not in fact been counting on his having grossly exaggerated the degree of his influence over Sheldon Anapol, the owner of Empire Novelties. If he were to keep up the pretense to which he had devoted so much wind and invention, then he was all but obliged to come home from work tomorrow night clutching a job for Josef Kavalier in his grubby little stock clerk's fingers.
"I'll try," he said, and it was then that he felt the first spark, the tickling finger of possibility along his spine. For another long while, neither of them spoke. This time, Sammy could feel that Josef was still awake, could almost hear the capillary tricklee of doubt seeping in, weighing the kid down. Sammy felt sorry for himi. "Can I ask you a question?" he said.
"Ask me what?"
"What was with all the newspapers?"
"They are your New York newspapers. I bought them at the Grand Central Station."
For the first time, he noticed, Josef Kavalier twitched. "Eleven."
Sammy quickly calculated on his ringers: there were eight metropolitan dailies. Ten if you counted the Eagle and the Home News. "I'm missing one."
"Times, Herald Tribune," he touched two fingertips, "World-Telegram, Journal-American, Sun." He switched hands. "News, Post. Uh, Wall Street Journal. And the Brooklyn Eagle. And the Home News in the Bronx." He dropped his hands to the mattress. "What's eleven?"
"The Woman's Daily Wearing."
"Women's Wear Daily?"
"I didn't know it was like that. For the garments." He laughed at himself, a series of brief, throat-clearing rasps. "I was looking for something about Prague."
"Did you find anything? They must have had something in the Times."
"Something. A little. Nothing about the Jews."
"The Jews," said Sammy, beginning to understand. It wasn't the latest diplomatic maneuverings in London and Berlin, or the most recent bit of brutal posturing by Adolf Hitler, that Josef was hoping to get news of. He was looking for an item detailing the condition of the Kavalier family. "You know Jewish? Yiddish. You know it?"
"That's too bad. We got four Jewish newspapers in New York. They'd probably have something."
"What about German newspapers?"
"I don't know, but I'd imagine so. We certainly have a lot of Germans. They've been marching and having rallies all over town."
"You're worried about your family?"
There was no reply.
"They couldn't get out?"
"No. Not yet" Sammy felt Josef give his head a sharp shake, as if to end the discussion. "I find I have smoked all my cigarettes," he went on, in a neutral, phrase-book tone. "Perhaps you could-"
"You know, I smoked my last one before bed," said Sammy. "Hey, how'd you know I smoke? Do I smell?"
"Sammy," his mother called, "sleep."
Sammy sniffed himself. "Huh. I wonder if Ethel can smell it. She doesn't like it. I want to smoke, I've got to go out the window, there, onto the fire escape."
"No smoking in bed," Josef said. "The more reason then for me to leave it."
"You don't have to tell me," Sammy said. "I'm dying to have a place of my own."
They lay there for a few minutes, longing for cigarettes and for all the things that this longing, in its perfect frustration, seemed to condense and embody.
"Your ash holder," Josef said finally. "Ashtray!'
"On the fire escape. It's a plant!"
"It might be filled with the ... spacek? ... kippe? ... the stubbles?"
"The butts, you mean?"
"Yeah, I guess. Don't tell me you'd smoke-"
Without warning, in a kind of kinetic discharge of activity that seemed to be both the counterpart and the product of the state of perfect indolence that had immediately preceded it, Josef rolled over and out of the bed. Sammy's eyes had by now adjusted to the darkness of his room, which was always, at any rate, incomplete. A selvage of gray-blue radiation from the kitchen tube fringed the bedroom door and mingled with a pale shaft of nocturnal Brooklyn, a compound derived from the haloes of streetlights, the headlamps of trolleys and cars, the fires of the borough's three active steel mills, and the shed luster of the island kingdom to the west, that came slanting in through a parting in the curtains. In this faint glow that was, to Sammy, the sickly steady light of insomnia itself, he could see his cousin going methodically through the pockets of the clothes he had earlier hung so carefully from the back of the chair.
"The lamp?" Josef whispered.
Sammy shook his head. "The mother," he said.
Josef came back to the bed and sat down. "Then we must to work in the darkness."
He held between the first fingers of his left hand a pleated leaf of cigarette paper. Sammy understood. He sat up on one arm, and with the other tugged the curtains apart, slowly so as not to produce the telltale creak. Then, gritting his teeth, he raised the sash of the window beside his bed, letting in a chilly hum of traffic and a murmuring blast of cold March midnight. Sammy's "ashtray" was an oblong terra-cotta pot, vaguely Mexican, filled with a sterile compound of potting soil and soot and the semipetrified skeleton, appropriately enough, of a cineraria that had gone unsold during Sammy's houseplant days and thus predated his smoking habit, still a fairly recent acquisition, by about three years. A dozen stubbed-out ends of Old Golds squirmed around the base of the withered plant, and Sammy distastefully plucked a handful of them-they were slightly damp-as if gathering night crawlers, then handed them in to his cousin, who traded him for a box of matches that evocatively encouraged him to EAT AT JOE'S CRAB ON FISHERMAN'S WHARF, in which only one match remained.
Quickly, but not without a certain showiness, Josef split open seven butts, one-handed, and tipped the resultant mass of pulpy threads into the wrinkled scrap of Zig Zag. After half a minute's work, he had manufactured them a smoke.
"Come," he said. He walked on his knees across the bed to the window, where Sammy joined him, and they wriggled through the sash and thrust their heads and upper bodies out of the building. He handed the cigarette to Sammy and, in the precious flare of the match, as Sammy nervously sheltered it from the wind, he saw that Josef had prestidigitated a perfect cylinder, as thick and straight and nearly as smooth as if rolled by machine. Sammy took a long drag of True Virginia Flavor and then passed the magic cigarette back to its crafter, and they smoked it in silence, until only a hot quarter inch remained. Then they climbed back inside, lowered the sash and the blinds, and lay back, bedmates, reeking of smoke.
"You know," Sammy said, "we're, uh, we've all been really worried ... about Hitler... and the way he's treating the Jews and ... and all that. When they, when you were ... invaded.... My mom was ... we all..." He shook his own head, not sure what he was trying to say. "Here." He sat up a little, and tugged one of the pillows out from under the back of his head.
Josef Kavalier lifted his own head from the mattress and stuffed the pillow beneath it. "Thank you," he said, then lay still once more.
Presently, his breathing grew steady and slowed to a congested rattle, leaving Sammy to ponder alone, as he did every night, the usual caterpillar schemes. But in his imaginings, Sammy found that, for the first time in years, he was able to avail himself of the help of a confederate.
Barnes & Noble.com: Quite a lot has been written about the relationship between your personal life and the lives of your characters. To what degree does your own biography inform the characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?
Michael Chabon: In some ways it's more the imagined biography of my father than my own. It was really a long series of conversations that my dad and I had when I was growing up about the world of his childhood, which was in New York in the '40s and '50s, a little later than in this book. When I was pretty small, about six I think, he bought me this record, classic themes from radio programs from the 1930s and '40s. I listened to it over and over again and started asking, What was this show about? What was that show about? The whole idea that there were these things called radio shows, with heroes like the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, stuff I could really get into, was fascinating to me. And that began a conversation: What else did you do when you were a kid? What other things did you used to have that we don't have anymore? Going to the movies on Saturday morning to see the whole day's worth of programming, from the cartoons to the newsreel to the A picture to the B picture. That began a lifelong fascination with American society and popular culture and the history of the middle part of the century.
I really did just sort of dream the whole thing up. If there are things about me and my own life that are in Joe and Sammy, it's all very unconscious. I never thought, Oh I'm going to take this thing that actually happened to me and try to turn it into a book -- which I have done many times before, but with this book it just wasn't like that. I was dealing with something so remote from me in time and place that it didn't even occur to me to try to base it on my own experience. The only thing that I was consciously aware of taking from my own life -- my wife is a writer, too (Ayelet Waldman), and we talk about our work with each other, often in bed; we bounce ideas off each other and criticize each other's work -- when Sammy and Rosa are doing that, that's taken from my life. But that's the only place I can think of where I deliberately did that.
B&N.com: On your web site you've posted an essay entitled "Are Novels Golems?" The golem, who figures prominently in the novel, is a Frankenstein-like being from Jewish folklore, fashioned out of clay and endowed with life. But, like Shelley's "monster," the golem ultimately endangers the life of its creator. What is the danger inherent in the act of creation?
MC: I saw the metaphor working for me in terms of the sense of imperilment, putting myself at risk in some way for writing something that in retrospect I feel is good. If something doesn't seem good to me, I might look back and say I wasn't putting myself at risk. For a lot of writers that danger is very real. If you live under a repressive regime that does not permit freedom of expression, then simply expressing yourself, in any way, could be fatal. I don't have that kind of risk, thank God. For me, it is much more about exposing myself -- or, even worse than that, not exposing anything about me but knowing for certain that if I say something about my characters, readers will immediately think I'm saying something about myself. They'll think it of me, even if it isn't true.
Now let's take Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys. I was concerned that people would think I was a big pothead and that I hadn't been able to finish my second novel because I had such a big dope-smoking problem. Many people have made that assumption. Knowing that's going to happen, knowing people are going to draw these conclusions about you and doing it anyway -- that is the sense of being imperiled by your own creation that is necessary.
In this book there's Sam Clay and his closeted life and his marriage of necessity. I felt sufficiently imperiled by that. That provided a core of danger in the book that I found necessary. In fact, I was just doing an interview in L.A. last week and the interviewer was dancing around the whole question of writing about a closet-case character. He was trying to probe that area.
B&N.com: Is America a lucky land? Are Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay lucky, or are they in fact "boy geniuses"?
MC: Both. They have some good luck, and they have some horrible luck. Those kinds of luck and chance affect them for good and for ill. The fact that Joe even gets out of Prague is a combination of talent on the part of his teacher, Kornblum, and pure luck. That last second, when the German officer doesn't open the crate, that's luck. And who knows how much luck was involved in getting Joe from Lithuania, across Russia, out of Japan, across the ocean to America. If that doesn't happen, they don't get together and they don't get to create the Escapist.
Speaking of myself, I have been extremely lucky, and a lot of breaks have gone my way. If it had been otherwise -- even though I think I do have talent and ability -- nonetheless, my fate would have been very different. America, especially if you are a white person, is a country that really does make breaks possible. It is a very lucky time to be living in a very lucky country. The whole country is lucky. We've had so many moments where it could have gone so awry, and there is so much we don't have to contend with that other people do.
It's weird trying to leap from the micro to the macro to talk about luck and opportunity and chance and talent, but I do also feel, on the smallest micro level, in terms of my own writing, that I rely on luck and chance. It's like that line by Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind." So many times I've stumbled on something while out for a walk, happening to pass through a building or a room where there is a magazine lying around, picking up that magazine, and finding something in it that is the exact solution to what I've been working on in my writing. If I hadn't picked up that magazine and seen that article that had this little fact in it, what would have happened? My mind, even when I'm not writing, is so immersed, so occupied by trying to find solutions, that I can recognize them when I see them. I think it's that ability to recognize the opportunities that talent gives you. But for the opportunities themselves, you do have to rely on luck.
B&N.com: Grady Tripp's unending 2,600-page tome, Sam Clay's doomed epic novel, your own aborted attempt to complete Fountain City -- what do we learn from failure?
MC: I don't know that you learn anything. You learn that you can fail. That is in itself a very valuable lesson. I'm very drawn to stories of failure, especially really huge failures. They have always been very fascinating to me. And that notion of failure is something that I live with all the time and feel very close to. Going through that experience with Fountain City made concrete what it feels like to fail. It was a pretty horrific experience.
B&N.com: Looking back, can you see why you failed?
MC: No. That's why I say it's very hard for me to draw lessons from, because I've changed my opinion so many times over the years about what the meaning of that was, why I couldn't do it. For a while I thought it was conceived poorly, but now I'm more inclined to think that I just gave up too soon. But that might not be right. I don't know. I don't have a lot of faith in my own retrospective analysis over time. It seems to change, depending on what I'm feeling at that moment.
B&N.com: You did a tremendous amount of research for this novel. Do you tend to map out a game plan ahead of time, or do your research more on a need-to-know basis?
MC: With this book I had to do more reading than with any other book I've written. That included spending a month here in New York just walking around. I had a 1939 WPA Guide to New York, and I used that as my guidebook. I went to the New York that it described and tried to find it -- a lot of it is still here; some of it is gone. I did lay an initial groundwork by reading histories of comic books, getting a sense of who the guys were who went into the field, what they were like, what the field was like, how it was run. Then I began writing and did further research on more of a need-to-know basis. I ended up going to a lot of places that I wasn't expecting to go to, like Antarctica. Even the Empire State Building I didn't know would play such an important role in the book as it does, so I had to do a lot of reading about that. As the need would arise, I'd go up to the library and try to immerse myself.
B&N.com: Was there a specific comic book artist who inspired the book?
MC: Right when I was starting to think about what I was going to do next, I had been toying for a while with this idea of trying to write something set in this period. I can't remember anymore, but I think it was in Smithsonian magazine that I read an article about Superman, the history of Superman. It was an anniversary or something. And they talked about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and how they dreamed up this character in Cleveland on this one hot night in 1936. That was the trigger -- that's how I can get into this period and this time.
I had this childhood memory/knowledge of comic books, and it just all came together and I said, I'm going to write a novel about two golden age comic book creators. It wasn't Siegel and Shuster. My Sammy and Joe don't bear very much resemblance at all to Siegel or Shuster, but it was inspired by their example, an example of failure -- another story of success followed by failure. They created this character who, 70 years later, is still very much with us, and yet they saw very little of its success themselves. They sold the rights for a hundred bucks. They ended up very destitute and miserably impoverished. That is the kind of story that has always attracted me.
B&N.com: Joe Kavalier is an artist who is never satisfied with his work, and yet at the same time one who knows just how good he really is. His masterwork, The Golem, is a 2,256-page comic book with no dialogue, absolutely no words at all, save those that appear as part of the artwork itself, signs on buildings or labels on bottles. Is that in any way a comment on the way we depend on language to communicate and tell stories?
MC: I was trying to get into the psychology of an artist at that point, and of a comic book artist in particular. I thought, both by intuition and by reading some things that great comic book artists said in interviews, that they always do view the [dialogue] balloons as an intrusion and a marring of what they've done. Sometimes they draw the space for the balloons. In the old days they didn't. Now they tend to decide where the balloons are going to go, and some of them have found ways to work them into the composition. But for the longest time some guy would come along and just slap balloons into the panels -- they would cut them out and stick them wherever they wanted, sometimes blocking out entire characters. So it just seemed to me that that was what Joe would aspire to, to tell a story that could be told without the need for balloons, without even any room for balloons. There's no need for them and no space for them.
There was this fun, classic example. In the late 1960s there was this comic artist named Steranko, Jim Steranko, and he was drawing this book for Marvel called Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and he was very revolutionary. He brought a lot of graphic design techniques into comics that hadn't been seen before. He did this two-page sequence where Nick Fury was infiltrating the headquarters of evil, and there were no captions or balloons. He had to fight really hard to get them to accept it, and they finally did. Later they got angry letters from readers all over the country saying, "I want my money back, there was a flaw in my comic, all the balloons were missing, I got a defective," so they never repeated that experiment.
B&N.com: At one point, Sammy puts his characters and stories into the hands of radio scriptwriters, who then alter certain aspects to make them appropriate for the program. How do you feel about seeing your own work adapted to the big screen -- giving your work away, as it were?
MC: I'm fine with it -- you know, it pays really well. That's very consoling. Actually, I thought the movie of Wonder Boys was really good, so that's even better. Even if it had been terrible it would have been all right. But that fact that it was good was gravy.
B&N.com: Why do you think your treatment for the X-Men movie was rejected? MC: It had nothing to do with me or my pitch: It was that Bryan Singer came along right when they were deciding whether to buy my pitch or not. He was the guy who directed The Usual Suspects, and his guy was the guy who wrote The Usual Suspects. It was a clear choice. I was just this guy who had written two novels that had nothing to do with comic books or anything like them.
B&N.com: Was this before or after you had started writing Kavalier & Clay?
MC: I had already started. I couldn't pass up the offer; it was a great invitation. But it was a very smart decision on the part of the movie studio.
B&N.com: Finally -- who is your favorite superhero?
MC: Now, or when I was reading comic books?
MC: I guess when I was reading them I liked Fantastic Four. That was always my favorite. I loved Jack Kirby and his artwork. And there was something about the sort of family nature of that team -- they all lived together in that giant skyscraper.
Now I'd have to say it's Superman, and that's mostly because my son, who is three, is really into Superman. And looking around at this sort of media landscape that he's presented with and the superhero figures that are getting offered to kids, Superman just looks really good to me, as a father. He's still good. He still fights on the side of truth and justice. He's polite. He's not tortured. He doesn't have that killer instinct that so many other "hero figures" seem to require to be successful these days, like Wolverine. I can really get behind Superman, as a dad.
--Cary Goldstein, Fiction & Literature Editor
1. Reading group guide for THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY by Michael Chabon Escape, literally and figuratively, is everywhere in this novel. Why do you think Michael Chabon and the characters in the novel place so much importance on it? From what and to what are the different characters in the novels escaping? When is escape good in the novel and when is it bad? Can the character of Joe Kavalier ever quit trying to escape, whether it is from place, like Prague and New York, or from relationships, like Rosa and Sammy? When Sammy leaves for LA, is this an escape, and if so, is it good or bad? Why do characters in this novel seem to be trying to escape relationships, and what are the different types of relationships that can be binding? Does the escaping end at the conclusion of the novel?
2. Compare the theme of escape in the novel to escapist nature of art. In what ways does Chabon explore this in his novel through the art of magic, and painting, and comics? How is the novel THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY an escape itself and the creation of a world unto itself for the reader? Although the novel is clearly fiction, why do you think Michael Chabon goes to such lengths to make it feel real, by adding real historical facts and fictitious footnotes? Why do you think Chabon chose to write about the medium of comics, as opposed to something else like television or the movies?
3. How are love and family portrayed in the novel? What constitutes a family at different points in the novel? What are the different types of love in the novel? How are the families of Joe, Sammy, and Rosa different, and how are these three people able to make a familythemselves? What role does family play in Joe's life? Does it unnecessarily bind him to the past? Why or why not? Is there something special about America that allows for unorthodox types of families? Why do you think Sammy married Rosa? Why did she marry him? Are Sammy and Joe both fathers to Tommy?
4. Joe and Sammy create alter egos for themselves and others in their comic books. What is the significance of this? Do the comic book character give us any insight into the real characters in the book which they resemble. Does the character of Luna Moth help us to understand Rosa or Joe more? What does the character of The Escapist tell us about Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay? Why does Joe dress up as The Escapist before reuniting with Rosa and Sammy?
5. A golem, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is "a man artificially created by cabalistic rites: a robot." Knowing this, what do you think the significance of the golem is in this novel. Why is it so important to preserve the golem, and what is the realization one comes to when the golem is only dirt? Where does the transforming power lie, in the dirt or some other, inexplicable, magic quality? Does the power of the creator die with the creation? Compare the creation of the golem to the creation of The Escapist and other characters by Sammy and Joe and the creation of THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY by Michael Chabon.
6. Is this a happy ending? Is Sammy escaping to LA?
Posted August 12, 2012
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a 2000 novel by American author Michael Chabon that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. The novel follows the lives of two Jewish cousins before, during, and after World War II
The novel begins in 1939 with the arrival of 19-year-old Josef "Joe" Kavalier as a refugee in New York City, where he comes to live with his 17-year-old cousin Sammy Klayman. Joe escaped from Prague with the help of his teacher Kornblum by hiding in a coffin along with the inanimate Golem of Prague, leaving the rest of his family, including his younger brother Thomas, behind. Besides having a shared interest in drawing, Sammy and Joe share several connections to Jewish stage magician Harry Houdini: Joe (like comics legend Jim Steranko) studied magic and escapology in Prague, which aided him in his departure from Europe, and Sammy is the son of the Mighty Molecule, a strongman on the vaudeville circuit.
When Sammy discovers Joe's artistic talent, Sammy pitches the idea of a comic book based on a hero he and Joe thought of--The Escapist--to Empire Novelties, Inc, owned by Sheldon P. Anatole and Jack Ashkenazy--Sheldon's brother in law. which, due to the recent success of Superman, is attempting to get into the comic-book business. Under the name "Sam Clay", Sammy starts writing adventure stories with Joe illustrating them, and the two recruit several other Brooklyn teenagers to produce Amazing Midget Radio Comics (named to promote one of the company's novelty items). The pair is at once passionate about their creation, optimistic about making money, and always nervous about the opinion of their employers. The magazine features Sammy and Joe's character the Escapist, an anti-fascist superhero who combines traits of (among others) Captain America, Harry Houdini, Batman, the Phantom, and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Escapist becomes tremendously popular, but like talent behind Superman, the writers and artists of the comic get a minimal share of their publisher's revenue. Sammy and Joe are slow to realize that they are being exploited, as they have private concerns: Joe is trying to help his family escape from Nazi-occupied Prague, and has fallen in love with the bohemian Rosa Saks, who has her own artistic aspirations, while Clay is battling with his sexual identity and the lackluster progress of his literary career.
For many months after coming to New York, Joe is driven almost solely by an intense desire to improve the condition of his family, still living under a regime increasingly hostile to their kind. This drive shows through in his work, which remains for a long time unabashedly anti-Nazi despite his employer's concerns. In the meantime, he is spending more and more time with Rosa, appearing as a magician in the bar mitzvahs of the children of Rosa's father's acquaintances, even though he sometimes feels guilty at indulging in these distractions from the primary task of fighting for his family. After multiple attempts and considerable monetary sacrifice, Joe ultimately fails to get his family to the States, his last attempt having resulted in putting his younger brother aboard a ship that sank into the Atlantic. Distraught and unaware that Rosa is pregnant with his child, Joe enlists in the navy, hoping to fight the Germans. Instead, he is sent to a lonely, cold naval base in Antarctica, from which he emerges the lone survivor after a series of deaths. When he makes it back to New York, ashamed to show his face again to Rosa and Sammy, he lives and sleeps in a hideout in the Empire State Building, known only to a small circle of magician-friends.
Meanwhile, Sam battles with his sexuality, shown mostly through his relationship with the radio voice of The Escapist, Tracy Bacon. Bacon's movie-star good-looks initially intimidate Clay, but they later fall in love. When Tracy is cast as The Escapist in the film version, he invites Clay to move to Hollywood with him, an offer that Clay accepts. But later, when Bacon and Clay go to a friend's beach house with several other gay men and couples, the company's private dinner is broken up by the local police as well as two off-duty FBI agents. All of the men are arrested, except for two who hid under the dinner table, one of whom is Clay. The FBI agents each claim one of the men and grant them their freedom in return for sexual favors. After this episode, Clay decides that he can't live with the constant threat of being arrested, ridiculed, and judged because of his sexuality. He does not go with Bacon to the West Coast. Some time after Joe leaves, Sammy marries Rosa and moves with her to the suburbs--Bloomtown--where they raise her son Tommy in what outwardly appears to be a typical traditional nuclear family.
Sammy and Rosa cannot hide all their secrets from Tommy, however, who manages to take private magic lessons in the Empire State Building from Joe for the better part of year without anyone else's knowledge. Tommy is instrumental in finally reuniting the Kavalier and Clay duo by sending a death threat from The Escapist to the Herald Tribune. Everyone thinks that Joe is going to kill himself and he does manage to jump and live to tell about it.
This reunites the two cousins and Joe moves back with Sam and Rosa. The cousins work with renewed enthusiasm to find a new creative direction for comics. Shortly afterwards, Sammy's homosexuality is revealed on public television, when he's forced to testify in front of The Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of The US Senate. This further complicates the attempts of Rosa, Sammy, and Joe to reconstitute a family.
In the end, Joe decides to leave for Los Angeles in search of hie true his true sexual identity and Joe and Rosa are in Bloomtown together after Joe buys Empire Comics to star a new series based on the Golam of Prague.
An amazing read, filled with wonderful tidbits of the period surrounding WWII. Many events in the novel are based on the lives of actual comic-book creators including Jack Kirby (to whom the book is dedicated in the afterword), Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, and Jim Steranko. Other historical figures play minor roles, including Salvador Dalí, Al Smith, Orson Welles, and Fredric Wertham. The novel's time span roughly mirrors that of the Golden Age of Comics itself, starting from shortly after the debut of Superman and concluding with the Kefauver Senate hearings, two events often used to demarcate the era.
The book was hard to put down. Chabon use of the English Language is impressive.
I found a paragraph that summarized the book's theme:
On page 575: "Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history--his home--the usual charged leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped in his life from ropes, chains, boxes, bags, and crates, from handcuffs and shackles, from countries and regimes, from the arms of a woman who loved him, from crashed airplanes and an opiate addiction and from an entire frozen continent intent on causing his death. The escape from reality was, he felt--especially after the war--a worthy challenge."
Posted May 2, 2011
The way this novel ended, I think was a unique and creative way in which Michael Chabon captured the feelings that everyone involved in the closing parts felt. It showed how even though Sammy had left his own home and his job to start a new life alone, without the help of Joe or Rosa, that he still would keep them in his heart forever and still think of them; his life, and their's wasn't in vein. On the yellow lot slip (for the house purchase) he emphasized that Kavalier and Clay would now and forever be partners in crime. Sam would take what he learned and bring it to the city he always wanted to call home, Los Angeles.
Posted February 23, 2011
The main characters; Sammy Clay, and Joe Kavalier who is trained to use the houdini escape methods, escape Nazi invaded Prague and attempt to create a comic book on the the adventure Joe had taken to get to the United States. Joe Kavalier is Sammmy Clay's cousin who is Jewish, he was sentenced to an internment camp so he fled to New York to start a new life where his travels with Sammy begin.
The book has many great qualities that intrigue the reader also some that make the reader want to fall asleep. The most exciting parts in the book were when the two cousins were discussing how Joe Kavalier had escaped from the Nazi controlled Czech, or when they try to create new stories and ideas for the comic book. Through all the raging excitement, there were some parts where the text between the two characters was dull. There was not any excitement and they just sat in Sammy's room and talked about their lives.This book comes highly recommended to any reader who is interested in thrillers, action, dramatic, and many more genres of book.
CHARACTER OVERVIEW: Joe Kavalier
Josef Kavalier was Sammy Clay's czech cousin who had escaoed from the Nazis in Europe in the thirties. Josef stood at a tall 5'11". Sammy could tell he had a ruged journey to the states by the look of his clothes and smell of his being. "He could barely stand on his own feet... in his baggy tweed suit" Joe's lack of the ability to stand and baggy clothes is due to the weakness in his body. Being that the clothes were so baggy, it probably means Joe had not eaten for a while and did not have the energy to stand."...an odor of cigarette, armpit, damp wool, and the sweet smell of prunes on his breath" (Chabon 5). The smell of cigarette is from his constant smoking as a 17 year old which tells the reader that he had been under a great deal of stress and smoked to relieve that stress. The odor of prunes if from the only thing Joe had to eat and the damp wool is from his coat when he was walking in the rains of New York.The only reasson Josef stays with Sammy throughout his comic book dreams, is that he wants to stay away from the Nazis in Prague. He was motivated by the freedom of the United States. During his time spent withhis cousin, Joe learned how to slowly open up more and allow Sammy to know what was going on to fill not only his, but Sam's dreams also. Through the duration of his time in New York, Josef Kavalier had changed from a teen who lived in fear and built up his thoughts to a young man who feels comfortable in his environment and is not afraid to share what's on his mind.
The main theme of the novel was the Houdiniesque tricks, or the different ways for Joe to teach Sam how to be a master escape artist. It was always Sam's goal to become an escape artist like Henry Houdini. He never knew anyone who could teach him, or anyone who knew how to escape tricky situations. When Joe came along and knew the escape tricks, Sammy felt as if he could use Joe to teach him how and in the process, create a comic book on his adventure from Europe. Sammy tells Joe he will break into the comic book company where he works and secretly create the story of Joe's travels and in that, reveals the secrets of escaping. Even though Sam is just using Joe, their bond begins to grow throughout the novel as they spend more time with each other.Sam has found out that; through desire and envy, one can find more than originally wanted, one can find a new friend
Posted May 28, 2010
Why doesn't publisher put this book in digital form? I want my children to read a book with which they can increase my vocabulary using a dictionary. They have no time to check a book dictionary or type in the words in a electronic dictionary.
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Posted May 18, 2010
This book is amazing on so many different levels, whether you're looking for adventure, comedy, tragedy, or maybe even a little sex, it has it all! Chabon intertwines the story of Kavalier and Clay with some of their comics so well that you think a new friend or love interest is being introduced, then BAM! you find out it's one of their creations. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is most definitely a must-read for everyone, no matter what genre your loyalties lie.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 15, 2010
This book was wonderfully surprising. I picked it up following the recommendation of a friend, and initially felt I wouldn't enjoy it due to my lack of interest in the comic book theme. However, it proved to be an engaging and touching story of two young cousins fighting parallel struggles in the U.S. and Prague who later join forces in New York City to create a highly successful series of comic book stories, whose themes and characters are a manifestation of both their own internal battles and a conflicted environment produced by the backdrop of the World War II Hitler era. The story is heart-wrenching with its plot line of conflicts and historical tragedies, but at the same time it allows you to escape the harsh realities along with the characters into an inviting fantasy world of magic and superheroes where good prevails over evil. It is also a story of hope, as despite the greatest of tragedies and divisive events that transpire, love remains persistent and unconditional.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 6, 2010
I absolutely loved this book, I actually felt like I was reading a piece of historical non-fiction. The characters were so well-developed, you find yourself deeply caring for them while also thinking they are real people! I highly recommend, and will definitely put this on my "re-read" list!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 18, 2009
Personally, I liked the story until Sam went utterly gay. It just ruined it for me. I also thought that it dragged on a bit long.
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Posted February 16, 2009
Posted February 16, 2009
Posted January 14, 2008
The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay is a fantastic exploration of pre-World War Two New York, a wonderfully entertaining saga centered around the escapades of two characters, Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, both so real, detailed, and believable that they might as well be given birth certificates, and the wealth of superheroes they create, including the Monitor, Luna Moth, inspired by their mutual love interest, Rosa Saks, and most notably their front man, the Escapist, a powerful symbol of their shared yearning to become more than what they would be without each other. For Joe, the Escapist also symbolizes his getaway from Prague, his birthplace in war-torn Europe. Joe Kavalier is a profound character. He learns magic in Europe, travels to America with a dead golem, and spends much of his time in Brooklyn beating up and getting beat up by American Germans. This is an amazing book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2006
Possibly one of the most intriguing books I have read - who would have thought a book involving comic books would be so interesting! Kavalier is a fascinating character, who is not able to see all that he has, and Clay longs for the time when he can be accepted for who he is - things which I think anyone can identify with. One follows the ups and downs in their lives not knowing what to expect thanks to Chabon's vivid imagination. When I read a novel by Chabon, I am always entranced with his writing and words, and enthralled with his clever imagination. But, this book is his best - there are many touching and poignant scenes and phrases that I feel I can see when I close my eyes. All in all, one of my most satisfying reads.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 16, 2006
I had great hopes for this 600+ page saga highlighting a critical time - pre WWI and the end of the Great DEpression. Infortunately, I felt the character develpment here was consistently weak and the different story lines far fetched. The ending was one that I'd expect in a comic book.
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Posted March 30, 2006
I enjoyed the beginning with the imagery of the Golem and the dirt of Prague. But once it got past the two main characters 'making it' it lost speed. Some great scenes, though, particularly the Antartica chapter. But the ending felt forced and silly. It felt like it shoud have ended sooner and the characters changed too much to make the last few chapters seem believable. It is only disappointing (2 stars) because I expected more from a Pulitzer. These expectations included: less wooden characters, more pulling into the storyline,a tighter plot and an ending that leaves you wanting, etc.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 3, 2005
Firstly, don't be deterred by the first 15 pages of this book. When I started, it seemed to be a strange/foreign subject matter. I read with my usually trusty digital dictionary by my side and found there were a number of words that weren't even in it. It very quickly moved on to a more familiar human subject and from then on, encompassed a lifetime of experiences of two newly-acquainted teenage cousins in the 1940s during the Golden Age of comics. The story is wonderful and at times seems so historically accurate, that I had to refer back to the title page to remind myself that it was a work of fiction. Like life, it has its ups and downs. The prose is so rich, it is hard for me to imagine being able to formulate thoughts and evoke images like Michael Chabon. I finished this book two weeks ago and I am still thinking about the story. The characters are so real, I feel like they are people that I once knew.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 21, 2004
There are too many wonderful aspects of this book to discuss and not enough rich words to do them justice. A must read for all who are avid readers and love thoroughly drawn characters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 12, 2004
This book is simply great. I can't say enough about it. I highly recomend this to anyone who has an interest in comic books, especially if you want to get into the business someday. This book has some twists and turns that I didn't see coming, and I think anyone who reads this will have a great time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 22, 2004
It was the colorful illustration of the Empire State Building that drew me to this novel. As I adore NYC, I admit that I judged a book by its cover :) Fortunately my superficial purchase paid off, and I ended up learning a lot about the individual¿s view of the WWII era, the American can-do philosophy, and, surprisingly, comic books. In fact, Michael Chabon so phenomenally created the characters of Sam and Joe that their passion for comics actually rubbed off on me ¿ an utter comic book virgin who now can¿t wait to try reading one. As the plot summary is just above, let me only add that the author is well aware of some of today¿s red-button social issues, and he doesn¿t hesitate to incorporate just about every one of them into his WWII-period novel. Despite some eyebrow-raising topics, you must admit Chabon's imagination is incredible and his imagery should rightly be termed as beautiful. Upon finishing, you¿ll be asking yourself how on earth can this man create such realistic fiction?! The book is long, but it does progress with some speed. Overall, you have a mix of sections that are page-turners and others that simply aren't. I enjoyed the book a tad less than immensely but a notch higher than really. Eventually, you should read this novel, but it is possible to let it wait on your bookshelf until you have finished up whatever you currently have your nose in.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 24, 2004