The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

by Michael Chabon
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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Summary

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, is a 2000 novel about two cousins who embark on a comic-book venture during the Golden Age of Comics.

  • Josef (“Joe”) Kavalier, a Jewish adolescent in Prague, escapes impending German occupation and moves in with his cousin, Sammy Klayman, in Brooklyn.
  • Sammy and Joe launch the comic series The Escapist, which becomes a success. 
  • Joe falls for Rosa Saks and tries to rescue his family from Prague. Sammy falls for actor Tracy Bacon.
  • Joe leaves to fight in WWII, and Sammy and Rosa start a family together.

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

In Brooklyn in 1939, Sammy Klayman, a seventeen-year-old Jewish boy, lives with his mother and grandmother. One night, his cousin, Josef Kavalier, appears unexpectedly from Prague. Josef’s parents had spent all their money on helping their son flee the country, but when visa regulations prevented his departure, Josef conspired with his magic teacher, Kornblum, to escape another way. He was packaged into a crate with Prague’s legendary Golem and shipped out of the country.

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Josef is a talented artist. Sammy introduces him to his employer, Sheldon Anapol, who says he will take them on as comic-book artists if they can make him “a Superman.” He asks for a sample comic, which they create alongside some of Sammy’s artist friends at their apartment. As an alternative to Superman, Joe and Samuel create the Escapist. It quickly becomes clear that Sammy’s real skill lies in writing, rather than drawing, and he becomes the scriptwriter.

The comic impresses Anapol, although the strongly anti-Nazi element makes him nervous. He takes the boys on, and the Escapist becomes an enormous success. However, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, as they are now known, have sold the rights, so they make less money than they could have.

When Joe hears that his father has died back in Prague, he becomes more set upon saving his mother and brother. He becomes embroiled in a brief feud with Carl Ebling, the chief of the Aryan-American League. This culminates in Ebling’s trying to set a bomb at an event where Joe is performing as an illusionist. Ebling is arrested and sent to prison.

When the Escapist is taken on as a radio drama, George Deasey at Empire suggests that Sammy and Joe ask Anapol to renegotiate their contracts.

At a party at the home of art dealer Longman Harkoo, both Sammy and Joe are changed by their experiences: Sammy is shaken by the sight of two men kissing, and Joe gets together with Rosa Saks, a fellow artist. Rosa knows the owner of the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, who, in exchange for money, promises to help rescue Joe’s brother, Thomas, from German-occupied Prague.

Joe and Sammy renegotiate terms with Anapol when Deasey lets slip that Anapol is being sued by Superman’s creators. Sammy perjures himself in court, saying the Escapist is unrelated to Superman. 

As they become wealthier, Joe saves his money to eventually start a family. Meanwhile, Sammy falls in love with Tracy Bacon, the actor who voices the Escapist on the radio-drama adaptation of the comic. 

Thomas is finally on a ship to the USA, but it is sunk by a U-Boat. Joe is performing a magic act at a bar mitzvah when he receives the news, and he is devastated. At this time, Rosa is pregnant with his child, and she is unable to tell Joe about the pregnancy before he leaves to join the Navy. Meanwhile, Sammy narrowly escapes an arrest for homosexual behavior by sexually gratifying an FBI agent. He had been at a house party, where he was recognized by Ruth Ebling, the brother of Carl, who knew of the connection between his own arrest and the Escapist comics and so sought revenge on Sammy. 

Joe spends the war in Antarctica. A carbon monoxide leak kills everyone on base but Joe and his comrade Shannenhouse, who overhear German transmissions from a nearby base. En route to this base by plane, Shannenhouse dies of appendicitis. At the German base, Joe accidentally kills the German radio operator and is traumatized by the event. He has also learned through letters that Sammy and Rosa are married and that Tracy Bacon is dead. 

A hoax letter in the press promises that the Escapist will leap from the top of the Empire State Building. Sammy becomes hopeful that Joe wrote the letter and has returned. Detective work makes clear that the letter was actually written by Tommy, their son. But Tommy admits that Joe is actually in town; Joe made contact with Tommy at a magic shop and began seeing him weekly. Joe then appears and performs an unsuccessful bungee jump. He has been living illegally in an office building suite. 

Joe then moves in with the Clay family. He shows Sammy the comic he has been writing, which is about a Golem. Sammy, who now runs a comic house for which Rosa draws romance comics, wants to print it. He suggests that Joe’s Golem and other comics based on Jewish folklore might capture the zeitgeist of the time. Sammy has not been financially successful over the years, and he has come to feel that comics are an “inferior” medium. The pair are saddened when Anapol decides to kill off the Escapist.

Joe realizes that Sammy has never loved Rosa romantically, and he is devastated that Sammy is so sad. Joe considers using the money he amassed for his family to buy Empire Comics for Sammy. Before Joe can do this, Sammy is forced to testify about the capacity of comics to pervert young minds, and he is identified on television as a homosexual. However, he feels “relieved.” 

The Golem box is sent back to the Clays’ house. The Golem itself has turned to dust. Rosa and Joe tell Tommy the true story of his parentage. Both Rosa and Joe want Sammy to stay, but Sammy says he needs to “prove a point” to himself, and he sets off for LA to work in television, now relieved of his secrets.

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