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Review: 'Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' work of a literary superhero


"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"
By Michael Chabon
Random House
639 pages

In this story:

'Houdini mixed with Robin Hood'

Representations of something larger


(CNN) -- Toward the end of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," one of the characters reflects on the peculiar nature of comic book covers. For one thing, covers of comic books are often drawn by a different artist than the one who does the actual story; for another, they're often overly dramatic, even apocalyptic, providing only an outsize glimpse of the actual plot inside. And yet, they ring true. We know that the hero will survive, and that's what matters.

Perhaps, then, a cover idea is the best way to describe Michael Chabon's bold new novel. It could be a boy hiding in a coffin next to the clay remains of a golem, a Yiddish totem. Maybe a mad bomber at a nautical-themed bar mitzvah. Or Salvador Dali trapped in a bizarre breathing contraption. Or, perhaps, simply two Jewish boys, one newly arrived from Nazi-occupied Europe, standing in the offices of their comic book company, looking out a window of the Empire State Building. All scenes from "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," and all offering only a tantalizing peek at the richness within.

  • Michael Chabon pulls off a sleight of hand
  • Excerpt: 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay'

    In the case of the novel, the heroes of the story are Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, comic book creators, a boy from Brooklyn and his immigrant cousin aspiring to greatness. But the real hero is Chabon, an already fine, funny and moving writer who makes the leap to historical novels in a graceful single bound -- if "historical novel" can do justice to his work.

    'Houdini mixed with Robin Hood'

    In the late '30s, having persuaded Sam's boss to enter the nascent comic book business, Sam Klayman and his cousin Josef Kavalier feverishly create their first comic book. Their hero is the Escapist, a superhero who can free himself from all sorts of situations with the help of a mysterious golden key.

    The Escapist is, as Sam describes him, "Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer." Their first cover, drawn by Joe, who has only recently smuggled himself (in a coffin) out of Czechoslovakia, is startling: the Escapist punching Adolf Hitler.

    The comic book industry the two enter is not just backdrop; it's as central as the characters themselves. Like magic, another recurring theme in the novel, comic books, and especially those from that "golden age," are all about power. But often they're reminders of the powerlessness of their creators and readers. Joe Kavalier, the only member of his family to escape to America, can kill comic book Nazis by the dozens, but he can't rescue the family he's left behind.

    Chabon fills his story with characters ranging from the comic book creators to their even more fictional superheroes to people like Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. He perfectly captures a time and place (New York in the 1940s) in a way that is well researched but never feels forced or made-up. Everything feels as if it could be no other way, so naturally bizarre that it must be true.

    Representations of something larger

    And yet there's an epic feel to the work. Comic books are representations of something larger -- art disguised as something common and street-smart, a way to fulfill the dreams of even the most alienated of young boys.

    Comic books also feature heroes that are larger than life, superpeople created in the hope that they can protect us and ward off evil. In the novel, Chabon writes about creating a golem, an automaton created by rabbis to protect their people. Golems are "the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something -- one poor, dumb, powerful thing -- exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation." Golems come up frequently in "Kavalier & Clay," and it's no wonder: Comic book superheroes are the modern equivalent of these inventions.

    Chabon, who obviously loves comic books, also does not need to stretch to point out that these works are a partial reflection -- perhaps only the size of a pocket mirror -- of who we are now and who we were throughout the 20th century. The book follows Kavalier and Clay through the World War II era to the more uncertain days of the Cold War era. They learn with the end of the war there is no longer a need for old-fashioned superheroes; even superheroes can come under attack, and the Bomb can make their all-too-human alter egos just as interesting.

    "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" is more than a novel about the American Dream. Yes, it features all the successes and failures, lost loves, and personal struggles that foster that dream, but it's something more. It's a grand novel about dreamers selling dreams, reminding us that part of the thrill of dreaming is not the dream itself, but the realization that we can dream. We may not have superpowers, but isn't it great that -- even if only for a moment -- we can fool ourselves into thinking we do?

    Michael Chabon's Home Page
    Random House

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