Michael Chabon,
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
(Random House, 2000)

At a hefty 636 pages, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is no easy read. Even the most avid of Michael Chabon fans will have to break themselves from the novel every now and then so as not to spend an entire day (or more) behind its book spine. And at 636 pages, Kavalier & Clay certainly covers a lot of territory, both in plot and in physical years. Tracing the tale of two cousins in New York who have the drive to dream big in the blossoming comic-book industry, Chabon follows their adventures from an initial, unexpected meeting in 1939 until well into the 1950s.

And while I can understand why a work like Chabon's can lay claim to a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (which it did in 2001), I can't say I loved the thing. I can appreciate Chabon's extensive research of the earliest roots of the comic-book industry, the rich descriptions of his characters and, of course, his top-notch storytelling that accompanies him in whatever he wants to write about. Though Kavalier & Clay is regarded as Chabon's most notable work, in the end it isn't my favorite.

The novel focuses on the journeys of two lead characters: cousins Sammy Klayman (who self-identifies as Sam Clay once his comic career takes off) and Josef Kavalier, who meet as teenagers one night in Sam's Brooklyn home after Joe escapes from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Upon discovering Joe's knack for fine illustrations, Sam drags him along to convince Empire Novelties, a New York company, to hire the pair to spearhead Empire's first foray into the small, but thriving comic-book industry. (The 1939 setting is just one year after Superman was launched). With Sam's knowledge of the young industry coupled with Joe's creative talents, the cousins quickly create their own hero -- The Escapist -- which becomes their flagship comic of sorts as their success (and earnings) take off.

But if comics aren't your bag (certainly they aren't mine), Kavalier & Clay offers more to its readers than a simple crash course into the colorful beginnings of the graphic novel. Sam, for example, struggles with his sexual identity. Today, he might identify as gay or homosexual, but these terms didn't exist at the time, leading Sam to discover his sexual side not only individually, but also completely in secret. Joe, on the other hand, battles his own personal demons, principally the fact that his career (and life) is booming in the States, while his family -- a father, a mother and a younger brother, Thomas -- continue to live a desolate and endangered life abroad.

And Kavalier & Clay wouldn't be an official part of Chabon's fiction canon without his fantastic narration, which I continue to both praise and admire after each Chabon novel I finish. Kavalier & Clay is filled with smart words, quick dialogue and in-depth descriptions of settings, characters and background history. At the same time, however, so much description, which seems to come to endless amounts here, made it difficult at times for me to navigate through Chabon's text. Oftentimes I wouldn't take breaks because I had tired of the story, but because I had tired of Chabon, who densely packs a lot of information between Kavalier & Clay's covers.

Comic-book lovers will find a lot to like here. I certainly learned a lot about a topic I knew very little of before tackling Chabon's epic novel, because the book not only tracks the history of his fictional characters, but also the real history of the industry going on around them. Again, a good read for fiction afficionados, but not as great as other Chabon works I've read.

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review by
Eric Hughes

9 August 2008

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