The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
This just might be one of the fabled “great American novels” you sometimes hear young writers set about to work on. Because – what is more American than comic books (even if, apparently, the first comic book was born in Switzerland, to a man named Rodolphe Töpffer)? They are by now almost an institution in themselves – with the movies, the books and the merchandise that inspired or fed millions of escapist dreams and fantasies. Thus what better name for a comic book hero than The Escapist imagined by Mr. Chabon? The stories of Joseph Kavalier and Sam Klayman (Clay) are entwined with the birth and flourishing of the comic book business – but they are by no measure limited to that. Of what I’ve read, this is by far Mr. Chabon’s best – a layered story of passion (both romantic and otherwise), imagination, hardship, loss, escape and, once more, a terribly screwed up family.
But let’s start with the beginning, when Joseph Kavalier is brought into his cousin’s bedroom by his aunt, after having performed his first successful escape – from a Prague that, in 1938, was already on its way to destroying the lives of its Jewish inhabitants. Sam’s all-American fantasies of getting rich through writing comics, coupled with his new-found cousin’s artistic talent would soon give birth to the partnership known as Kavalier & Clay, the first product of which will, of course, be The Escapist. But, like I said, this is only the beginning, and it wouldn’t be to anyone’s favor if I’d go deeper into the plot: suffice to say it encompasses war and the Nazi threat, Prague and its ubiquitous Golem (sort of a mythical superhero, really), childhoods spent in New Jersey, a trip to the Antarctic, Senate Comitee hearings and…and lots of other moments that you have to read the book to enjoy.
But, more than anything maybe, it’s about secrets – or rather, secret lives. Much like superheroes and their alter-egos, Joe and Sammy harbor secrets of their own: Joe’s life from enrollment until the feat that will bring him back with his family, Sammy’s little escapes from his marriage and even the foundation it was built on. Essentially both men live, for a while, in a cocoon of happiness (Joe with Rosa, Sam with Tracy helping him come to terms with who he really is) and both these protective casings are shattered in the same night: one by a sunken boat filled with children taking refuge from the war (Thomas Kavalier among them) and the other by a police raid enforcing the morals of the day. Joe chooses a life of solitude in an attempt to get revenge, while Sam chooses a life of denial, in an attempt to shield himself from public judgment and opprobrium. (This is something I’ve always found infuriating: people forced to hide who they really are and live miserably because of what others – or worse, the state – deem “moral” or “immoral”.) And this secretiveness is catching; even young Tommy Clay has 10 months’ worth of ditching school and meeting “uncle Joe” to account for.
In the end, things come full circle and everyone is where they should be – only 12 years later. It’s a nice parting thought, though: there’s always room for a second chance.