The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is about the history of American comic books, the Holocaust, World War II, American suburbia after the war, censorship, homosexuality, magic, art, and romance. After two highly praised novels on a smaller scale, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh(1988) and Wonder Boys (1995), Michael Chabon has created a Pulitzer Prize-winning, epic vision of mid-century America.
Sammy Klayman meets Josef Kavalier when his nineteen-year-old cousin arrives in Brooklyn from Czechoslovakia in 1939. Joe has escaped from the Nazi terror by hiding, with the help of Bernard Kornblum, his mentor in magic, inside a coffin containing the Prague Golem, the legendary clay figure that once came to life. With the Golem, Joe makes his way to Lithuania and then to the United States on his own. Having forsaken his ambition to be a magician modeled after his hero, Harry Houdini, when one of his escape stunts almost drowned him and his younger brother, Thomas, Joe plans to be an artist. When Sammy, a less talented artist, introduces Joe to the new world of comic books with their superheroes (Superman and Batman having recently been created), the cousins create the Escapist. Sammy convinces Sheldon Anapol, his boss at Empire Novelties, to give comic books a try as a means of advertising his products, and within a year Empire Comics is thriving, with the Escapist joined by several more crime-fighting characters; Sammy is responsible each month for over “two hundred pages of art and wholesale imaginary slaughter.”
The small, sickly Sammy blossoms as the primary writer for Empire Comics; his cousin has “animated” him just as the Rabbi Loew of legend breathed life into the clay Golem. Joe, in contrast, saves most of his money in the hope of getting his brother and parents out of Europe. Joe is everything Sammy longs to be: artistic, attractive, sure of himself. Sammy also feels drawn to his cousin by erotic emotions he does not understand or trust. More erotic tension is created when Joe meets Greenwich Village artist Rosa Saks, who falls for Joe and understands Sammy’s feelings for him better than Sammy himself.
The Escapist is the alter ego of both men. Sammy makes the superhero’s true identity that of an uncertain teenager with a limp, just like himself, and Joe uses him to beat up on the Nazis, help the oppressed, and win the war, just as he wishes he could do. Sammy worries that Joe might be “overcome by the imprisoning futility of his rage.” After learning of his father’s death, Joe indulges this rage by picking fights with Germans and Americans sympathetic to Hitler, leading to a clumsy assassination attempt while Joe is performing his rediscovered magic act at a bar mitzvah. He even feels guilty when he enjoys himself at the party where he meets Rosa. He wins Rosa’s heart forever at this event by using the skills taught by Kornblum to save the life of Salvador Dali, who, in one of his Surrealist stunts, is suffocating inside a diving helmet. (There are also notable cameos by Al Smith, who helped create the Empire State Building, where Empire Comics has its office, and Orson Welles, a big fan of the Escapist.) Through Rosa’s work at the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, Joe learns that he can pay for Thomas’s passage to America. After many delays, the ship carrying Thomas and hundreds of other children fleeing the Nazis is torpedoed by a U-boat, and all are killed. Confronted with the greatest despair of his life, Joe enlists to fight the enemy. At almost the same time, Sammy has given in to his homosexual impulses and begun an affair with Tracy Bacon, the handsome actor who plays the Escapist on the radio. When a weekend party at the New Jersey shore mansion of the program’s sponsor is raided, Sammy decides not to follow Tracy to Hollywood. Neither Sammy nor Rosa hears from Joe for over a decade. Finding herself pregnant, Rosa marries Sammy. The last section of the novel presents the couple’s suburban life in Bloomtown, Long Island (patterned after Levittown), raising their son, Tommy. Rosa becomes a highly successful artist for romance comics while Sammy moves from one unfulfilling job to another, spending years trying to complete a novel appropriately entitled “American Disillusionment.” After they are finally reunited with Joe, thanks to a clever intervention by thirteen-year-old Tommy, the trio begin to face the truth about themselves.
In Joe and Sammy, Chabon has created two complex protagonists, guilt-ridden and insecure. Joe feels guilty for leaving his family behind and for participating in the freedoms offered by America. An essentially secretive person, he can never be completely open with either Sammy or Rosa. This burden of secrecy prevents him from reading Rosa’s letters to him until near the end of the war; he has resolved to have nothing to do with her, their son, or Sammy afterward. His self-imposed exile also results from his inability to come to terms with the loss of his other family in the Holocaust. He must suffer to...
(The entire section is 2050 words.)