It is a blessing, in that decidedly push-up-your-glasses type of way, to read a book that engrosses you and makes an immediate impact while also letting you know, subconsciously at first and then, eventually, overtly, that you're going to read this again and you're going to enjoy it even more the next time. Not that reading books is this exclusively "nerdy" thing and so this experience only applies to "nerds" -- but that this feeling will mostly come down upon those who are regular readers, or it's the regular readers who will appreciate it most, compared to the readers who might get engulfed in any given book because of the novelty of it, and due to my personal years-long reading drought, it's something I haven't felt very vividly in some time. While not quite yet worthy of a descriptor like "voracious," I have read enough material recently enough to be able to say Kavalier & Clay is a decidedly special novel for me.
I think Kavalier & Clay has been a book like that for many people. It's probably a lot of peoples' favorite book -- it nudges toward and then nurtures an attachment to its storyline in many ways, as it deals with struggles of identity, of transition, of loss, of love, of war, of seeking peace both personal and interpersonal, of humanity on basic and complex planes. Michael Chabon's best-known work is the story of Josef Kavalier, a 19-year-old trained in art, magic and escapology who escapes from Prague near the beginning of its era under Nazi rule in 1939, and his 17-year-old cousin, Sammy Klayman, a comic-book-reading boy who lives in Brooklyn with his mother and grandmother. The pair meet for the first time when Joe arrives on the Klaymans' doorstep, finally having reached America after an arduous journey from Europe. (I will say here that this blog is absolutely full of spoilers on this book, in case anyone would prefer to avoid that for now.)
Quite immediately, Sam discovers Joe's natural and prodigious artistic ability. While he had a dream to write and draw comics himself, Sam realizes that with Joe manning the artist's brush, his work would have a much better chance to see the light of day -- or ever get completed in the first place. Sam, a natural salesman and entrepreneur, convinces his bosses at Empire Novelty that there's money in the comic book stand and they're given an opportunity to "bring [Empire] a Superman," in response to which they create a character named The Escapist, among a few other supporting heroes.
On the edge of the '40s, comic books and superheroes are still brand new in mainstream media. As Chabon explains, comic books prior to the success of Superman and Batman were primarily reprints and collections of comic strips that appeared in newspapers. The cousins take on the pen name of Kavalier & Clay, and build The Escapist up into a popular character, a household name -- Empire Novelties rebrands as Empire Comics and moves into a shiny new office in, appropriately, the Empire State Building, while The Escapist begins to see his face on pajamas, lunchboxes and on the TV screen. Offshoot characters find success as well -- the entire comics business is finding success before World War II -- and Kavalier & Clay are able to make a modest fortune on the endeavor, though they don't get as rich as they might have deserved due to their arrangement with Empire Comics.
The most interesting storylines in the book happen outside the comics medium, though. Kavalier is the main character, and his primary struggle is trying to arrange for his family -- his mother, father, grandparents, and younger brother Tommy -- to obtain passage to America. He tries steadily the entire time he's in New York, never letting himself enjoy the city, saving nearly every dollar he makes, but he finds no success. Eventually he is able to arrange for his little brother to be on a ship that will make a voyage from Europe to America with dozens of Jewish boys attempting to escape Nazi-ruled areas. Joe is able to make this arrangement through Rosa Saks, who he meets early in his time in New York and with whom he eventually falls in love. Rosa volunteers for a man who is leading the charge in getting these boys to America and Joe gets Tommy aboard by agreeing to pool some of his money to pay for several of the boys who will make the journey.
An unthinkable tragedy occurs when the vessel carrying Tommy is sunk by a Nazi submarine. Joe almost immediately joins the military, right at the time the attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, not really saying goodbye to any of his family or friends in New York, and leaving a considerable amount of money and his entire life in the hopes of killing German soldiers. This happens alongside Rosa's realization that she is pregnant -- something she cannot bring to tell Joe following the death of his younger brother, right after they had begun doing much of the work associated with providing Tommy a suitable place to live and grow. Joe is disappointed when he's sent to Antarctica to help man a base there, and winds up seeing a truly gruesome plot play out when his entire team, aside from him and one other man, are killed by a gas stove that explodes in their quarters. The ensuing weeks are extremely, horrifically depressing -- and Chabon writes it in a haunting, beautiful way.
The book as a whole is littered with lengthy, poetic passages from Chabon. His skill is in finding the balance between quick wit, fast-paced dialogue and these lengthy rambles about his characters or a scene in the book. Here's one of my favorite passages:
He slid off his stool and went to look down on the autumn morning through the windows of the Kramler Building. Steam purled from the orifices of the street. A crew of a half-dozen workers, in tan canvas coveralls, with peaked white caps perched atop their head, used a water hose and long disheveled brooms to sluice a grimy tide down the gutters toward the storm drains at the corner of Broadway. Joe threw open the rattling sash of the window and poked his head out. It looks like it was going to be a fine day. The sky in the east was a bright Superman blue. There was a dank Octoberish smell of rain in the air with a faint acrid tang from a vinegar works along the East River, seven blocks away. To Joe, at that moment, it was the smell of victory. New York never looks more beautiful than to a young man who has just pulled off something he knows is going to knock them dead.
A terrific description of New York if there ever was one. Having lived here for four years, I can attest to this city's ability to appear beautiful or terrible based exclusively on one's mental state.
While in Antarctica, Joe has been completely ignoring letters he receives from Rosa and Sam. As he and his one remaining soldier drudge through the grueling winter in Antarctica, he leaves these letters completely unopened until they decide to leave their base in search of the one known German soldier on the ice with them. They're going to fly 1,000 miles to find and kill this soldier -- a desperate act thought up by two men who felt they had to accomplish something -- but the danger of this mission prompts Joe to finally read these letters. He learns that Rosa and Sam got married and had a child, though he immediately deduces the child is his and that their marriage is something of a sham. He knows his two closest friends well enough to know this right away.
There's also the matter of Sam being gay, which is exposed to him slowly and expertly by Chabon. Sam suppresses these feelings nearly completely throughout the book, until he meets a man named Tracy Bacon, with whom he falls in love. Here's a short passage from Sam and Tracy, who snuck into the closed-down World's Fair, which was Sam's favorite place in the city as a child, after Sam has burned the tip of his finger while using his lighter as a flashlight:
They lay there for a few seconds, in the dark, in the future, with Sammy's sore fingertips in Tracy Bacon's mouth, listening to the fabulous clockwork of their hearts and lungs, and loving each other.
Sam's own discovery of his sexual orientation, and his reluctant acceptance of it, was the most fascinating arc in the book to me. Chabon hints at it regularly for chapters and chapters until there's a small breakthrough; then nothing for a while. Sam developing a secret relationship with Tracy Bacon is a long time coming by the time it happens. And when Tracy leaves New York for a new life on the West Coast, Sam returns to his secluded ways and avoids starting a new relationship, instead choosing to help Rosa raise Joe's son, who they name Tommy, after his little brother.
By the time Joe reaches the German soldier and kills him in a quite tragic exchange, he is weakened and the other soldier with him has already died. He is rescued eventually, sent to Guantanamo to recover, and shipped to Virginia to go back home. But he disappears from the ship, and Sam, there at the dock to pick him up, goes home empty-handed.
Joe re-appears in New York, and strikes up a relationship with Tommy, telling him that he's Tommy's uncle and asking him to keep his presence in New York secret from his parents. Tommy regularly visits Joe in the Empire State Building, where Joe uses a leased office as an apartment, talking to Joe and learning about magic from him. Joe spends this time drawing an extremely long, epic comic book story.
These characters' worlds crash together when Tommy writes a letter to a New York newspaper, posing as The Escapist and claiming he would commit suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building. Sam and the police are worried that Joe wrote the letter, so they team up and find Joe, dressed in an Escapist costume from the character's TV show, ready to perform an escape-ish jump from the building later that night, to Tommy's extreme surprise. They eventually reunite, with Joe sleeping in Sam and Rosa's house. Fast forwarding a bit: Sam is called to testify in a Congressional hearing about the negative effects of comic books on the youth of America, and during this hearing, Sam's sexual orientation is basically outed to the public.
The ensuing actions result in Sam leaving the family overnight to start a new life on the West Coast, and Joe and Rosa telling Tommy the identity of his real father. The ending is, flat-out, one of the most emotional conclusions to a book I've ever read. Joe shares a touching moment with Sam, discussing the years Sam has spent raising Tommy and living with Rosa as a family: "I know what you did. I know how it cost you something. I don't deserve to have a friend like you." The story of these two best friends is a beautiful and difficult one.
Recapping the book's plot leaves me at a loss to describe what makes it so special. It all comes back to Chabon's expert writing style, his ability to weave emotion and wit together seamlessly, and the heartiness of his characters. The historical aspect of the book, incredibly well-researched in many spots, provides a great backdrop for the story. It is ultimately a 600-plus-page chunk of prose that is masterful, incredibly rich, and extremely rewarding once finished. If you're a heavy reader, you'll find yourself swimming through these pages dozens at a time.
The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is available as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.