The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon
Random House. 659 pp. $26.95
One of the delicious ironies of 20th-century popular culture is the extent to which the images and sounds that defined the American Century sprang from the fertile imaginings of Jews only recently resident amid the amber waves of grain. Israel Baline, native of Byelorussia, wrote both the music and the utterly un-ironic lyrics to “God Bless America” under the name of Irving Berlin. Aaron Copland, the Brooklyn-born son of Russian immigrants, sought out and achieved what he called “conscious Americanism” in his orchestral works, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring.
And in 1938, two teenage Jewish boys in Cleveland created a character designed to fight “for truth, justice, and the American way.” Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel sold all rights to their creation—a bespectacled reporter hailing from a small town in Kansas who is in actuality an invulnerable and all-powerful immigrant from a distant planet—for $130, thus giving the lie to the classic anti-Semitic notion that Jews have an innate understanding of how to make and keep money.
The story of Siegel and Shuster’s invention of Superman is the biographical kernel of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which in April was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Published at the end of last year, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a singular achievement—a novel about the petty glories of pulp entertainment that evokes, analyzes, and transcends the world of comic books whose rise and decline it chronicles. Sentence by sentence, Chabon has always been an uncommonly good writer, perhaps the best prose stylist of his generation (he is thirty-eight). But there was no hint in his previous novels, the best-selling Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, of the propulsive force, narrative command, and beguiling wit he displays here.
Sammy Clay, né Klayman, seventeen years old in 1939, is a shipping clerk working for a novelty company who lives with his mother and grandmother in a Brooklyn apartment. One night his mother wakes him and forces him to share his bed with a cousin he has never met, a thin, pensive Czech refugee named Josef Kavalier, three years his senior.
Sammy is a classic American type, who “dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape. He dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person, like Clifton Fadiman, or perhaps into a heroic doctor.” Throughout the novel, he labors intermittently on a Dreiserlike tome he calls American Disillusionment, But his true, secret, and guilty passion is for comic books, the low cultural phenomenon of the moment.
Josef is from another world, literally and metaphorically. The eldest son of a distinguished Jewish family in Prague, he has spent his teenage years studying with a Houdini-like magician, learning how to escape from handcuffs and canvas sacks wrapped in chains and locks. His own escape from Prague involves magic of a more mystical kind. In Chabon’s imagining, a secret society of Bohemian Jews has long guarded the inert form that was once the Golem, a clay homunculus legendarily given life by a 16th-century rabbi to protect the Jewish community from pogrom. The approach of the Nazi army has convinced these Jews that the Golem must be removed from the country disguised as a corpse in a coffin. Josef’s family has liquidated all its assets to buy him an exit visa and a boat ticket to America. But upon reaching the German border he is turned back, and he ends up leaving Czechoslovakia hiding alongside the Golem in the coffin, and thence, via a tortuous itinerary, to Brooklyn.
Aside from his prestidigitatory skills, Josef is also a graphic artist of talent, and he and Sammy team up on a character they call the Escapist—“working for the liberation of all who toil in chains.” They sell the idea to Sammy’s boss, who has been looking for a new way to market joy buzzers. The cover of their first comic book features the Escapist punching the man who would soon decimate Josefs family: “As for Hitler, he came flying at you backward, right-crossed clean out of the painting, head thrown back, forelock a-splash, arms flailing, jaw trailing a long red streamer of teeth.”
The Escapist is a huge success from the get-go, and the boys find themselves awash in money and traveling in unexpected circles. They meet Salvador Dali and Max Ernst at a party at the Greenwich Village home of an aristocratic bohemian whose beautiful daughter, Rosa Luxembourg Saks, becomes Josefs lover. Sammy, whom everyone but he himself believes to be a homosexual, is initiated into the secret world of gay Manhattan by the actor who plays the Escapist on the radio. “Great stuff, the Escapist,” Orson Welles tells the boys at the premiere of Citizen Kane.
Josef, however, will not allow himself to enjoy his success. He spends his days fruitlessly trying to arrange his family’s escape, and comes to mock his own pretension to be a fighter for truth and justice:
He had been assuring himself, and listening to Sammy’s assurances, that they were hastening, by their make-believe hammering at . . . Hitler, the intervention of the United States into the war in Europe. Now it occurred to Joe to wonder if all they had been doing, all along, was indulging their own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who revered only strength and domination.
Finally, Josef lights on a method to secure his younger brother Thomas’s freedom, using his money to help a Jewish rescue committee buy a ship that will smuggle children from Lisbon to the New World. The seeming initial success of this venture allows him to envision a future with the lovely Rosa, and the two of them rent an apartment together on the Upper West Side. But this classic American fairy tale cannot last. Sammy, attending a party on the Jersey shore with Manhattan’s gay elite, is viciously beaten by police who raid the house, being spared arrest by a phone call from his mother informing him that Thomas Kavalier has died.
Fleeing New York, Josef now joins the Navy, unknowingly leaving behind a pregnant Rosa. He lands at a listening post in Antarctica, where he decides he will at last take his revenge on Hitler by staging an unnecessary raid against a German listening post and killing its sole inhabitant in cold blood. He is awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and promptly disappears. Still traumatized by his beating, Sammy marries Rosa, assumes the fatherhood of his cousin’s son, and settles into a joyless suburban existence in Long Island.
The denouement occurs in 1953, as Congress is beginning to crack down on the comics industry following the publication of Frederic Wertham’s crackpot tome The Seduction of the Innocent. Joseph’s son, now twelve years old, discovers his father among a circle of magicians at a shop in New York City, just as the coffin containing the Golem finds its way to Josef at long last:
The entire box was filled, to a depth of about seven inches, with a fine powder, pigeon-gray and opalescent, that Joe recognized at once from boyhood excursions as the silty bed of the Moldau. The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from the shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.
Chabon’s Golem is a symbol of the murdered European diaspora, Josef and Sammy of the remnant that fought impotently for its rescue. There is nothing offensive in this conversion of the Shoah into metaphor; but there is something off about it. The Jews of Central Europe, both those who were murdered and those who escaped murder, were ordinary people. In attempting to memorialize them and pay tribute to their suffering, Chabon descends into a false mysticism. It is true that their tradition featured a certain mystical strain, but it is also horrifically true that mysticism was among the forces that led to their extermination—an evil mysticism that promised the world would be purified by their removal.
Chabon, perhaps unconsciously echoing George Eliot’s depiction of Jewry in Daniel Deronda, sets the Jews of Central Europe apart. Like Daniel Deronda himself, Josef is an impossibly grand character, omni-competent, capable of near-supernatural feats of skill, survival, and self-sacrifice. These qualities make it difficult for a reader to feel any sort of commonality with him, and in this way Chabon inadvertently denies some measure of the humanity of Hitler’s victims.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay combines fable, magical realism, boy’s adventure storytelling, Horatio Alger, and mordant humor in an exhilarating stew that also attempts something entirely new in the depiction of the European Jewish catastrophe and the guilt suffered by those who succeeded in escaping it. Only when one has closed it for the last time, having spent 656 closely printed pages with the title characters, does it become unfortunately clear that this extraordinarily ambitious novel does not have all that much of interest to say. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a wonderful book but, despite its scope, a small one.