The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay kicks off in 1939 and tells the story of Josef Kavalier’s escape from German occupied Czechoslovakia with the sacred symbol of the Jewish people, the Golem. It also tells the story of Sam Clay, a young boy growing up in New York, and cousin to Josef. The two meet in New York when Josef’s sojourn branches away from that of the Golem. This opening section of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Chabon is gripping in the extreme, but is only the jumping off point for a sprawling story that largely mimics the real life story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman.
In a story that spans several decades, we get a beautifully delineated glimpse of New York in its heyday, replete with many of its real life movers and shakers, a lovingly crafted evocation of the Golden Age of comics, a look into the wheeling and dealing and backstabbing of a number of its key players, and the subsequent witch hunt of the McCarthyite era that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code. We experience the creation of Kavalier and Clay’s comic book character, the Escapist, the early days of the comic book and the later popularity of the character as a radio show. While the two young men have the Escapist fight Hitler and Nazi Germany throughout the Second World War, there is a heartrending account of Kavalier’s struggles to get the rest of his family out of Czechoslovakia. And as if that weren’t enough, there is also an astonishingly vivid account throughout the novel of the incredibly restrictive legal situation that oppressed gay men of the time.
It may seem like quite a mix of incompatible elements, but Chabon manages to capture the sheer majesty of an era and place where anything was possible, or at least where its citizens believed anything was possible. Interlaced with this are unsentimental ‘warts and all’ shots of the reality of the day. Ultimately, it’s a bittersweet exploration of friendship and loyalty and a hymn to a lost era of creativity and invention. It is a towering achievement, beautifully written and eminently readable, and has to rank in my top 10 books ever read.