Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Michael Chabon

Random House, 2000



“It was, in part, a longing—common enough among the inventors of heroes—to be someone else, to be more than the result of two hundred regimens and scenarios and self-improvement campaigns that always ran afoul of his personal inability to locate an actual self to be improved.”

3985It took me one week to write this review because I can’t find the right words to say about what I felt about this book. And came Shelley Harris’ review and her words are perfect to describe what I felt about Chabon’s novel:

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ is the book of a lifetime for the uncomplicated reason that I’ve spent my whole life reading, and it’s the best book I’ve ever read. But it’s the book of my writing life, too. Writers read double, I think: once in readerly abandonment to the story, a second time with a critical distance. In that second pass I watch ‘Kavalier and Clay’ as I might, appropriately enough, watch an illusionist. I try to work out the trick, to see how those movements, which seem perfectly ordinary – a shifting around of the same words we all use – might produce that dazzling effect.”

Comic books, magic and history come alive in this superb and extraordinary novel of Michael Chabon. Here in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Chabon brought to life the characters in comic books using his own brand of writing which is magic in itself. Chabon introduced us to Joe Kavalier, a Jew in Prague who escaped the clutches of Nazi terror in Europe through the help of his magician teacher and a Jewish mythical character: a golem. Joe will travel to the 1939 New York and meet his cousin Sam Clay as they embarked on their adventures, which from the start to finish, is nothing short of amazing.

The novel introduces us to the golden age of comic books in America and the struggles and triumphs of their artists and writers, the creators of the superheroes we come to know today: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the other less known but then successful characters such as the Escapist. Through this character, we watched as Joe and Sam pin their hopes and dreams on this imaginary superhero.


The character Joe and Samcreated is fitting. Joe Kavalier, fresh from his escape from Europe, dreamed of someone who could turn the tide of the war and deliver his people from the Nazis. This is while at the same time, unbeknownst to him at that moment, he created a fictional character based on his internal struggle of escaping his past and trying to live in the present. His cousin Sam, on the other hand, initially just wanted to escape his tiny world in New York,but as the story progresses, he would realize something on himself that is far harder to escape from or to be liberated from, that is if he wants to.

The duo eventually created their own hero: the Escapist,  a superhero who “vows to free all who toil in chains.”

Joe: the Amazing Kavalieri

escapist-1Joe’s story is the story of the past and present immigrants, escaping the horrors of the place from which they came from and escaping the guilty conscience of escaping that horror while others, their families and friends, are left behind to suffer. Joe story is a page-turner full of sadness and magic and (most of the time), hope. How he escaped by hiding in a coffin with the golem mirrors the story of escape of the Jews and other people prosecuted during the Second World War. But Chabon used these objects and people, the golem, Bernard Kornblum his magic teacher, the escape artist Houdini, as important factors in shaping the story of Joe, who like the golem, was released into the world to free his family, especially his little brother Thomas, from the clutches of Hitler and Nazis.

Through the escape artist Houdini, he created the story and the character of the Escapist, the one who would bring forth the end on the villainous Nazis, and Hitler himself. Through the magic taught by Kornblum, his teacher, he gave the Escapist powers to help him in his quest.

But reality eventually caught up with the talented Jew. He just started to accept living his life in New York free from guilt, with the help of Sam and his girlfriend Rosa Saks. But when he lost his family in Europe during the war, his brother’s ship sunk by a German U-Boat, he realized that the Escapist, is only a fiction, and his golden key, his source of power, could not free his family, and himself to the real horrors of life.

And so instead of escaping, he fled.

Sam Clay the Fairy and Tracy Bacon, his Escapist

12882Sam would soon discover that he is one that what people call that era as a “fairy.” His discovery of who he is was laid out carefully at the start of the novel: The Brighton Grand Hammamtrip with his dad, the Mighty Molecule, the kissing men he saw at the Salvador Dali party, and his conversion with Rosa:

“You need a girl.”
“College girl?”
“No thanks.”
“It’s just that you always have an excuse.”
“It’s not an excuse. It’s a disqualification.”
“And why are college girls disqualified? I forget.”
“I know this. It’s not a rational feeling.”

He had surrendered his life to a life of loneliness until he met Tracy Bacon. Tracy was the lead voice artist of the radio version of the Escapist and was the perfect man his mind could never conjure: handsome, a great physique, a good sense of humor and adventure. He is the Escapist brought to life.

Their loneliness was what drew them together as they embark on a life full of caution and barely uncontrolled desire. I like how Sam met Tracy, how the voice artist seemed to intimidate and scare him all at the same time. The words of his mother in that tiny house of theirs as they finished dinner would echo all throughout the novel.

“Sam opened the door and reached out into the ozone-sharp darkness, and then Bacon came beside him again and put out his hand, too, and they stood there, for a moment, watching as sparks two inches long forked from the tips of their outstretched fingers.”

The friendship and the love that bloomed between them was narrated in a style that only Chabon could pull off, that moment in the roofdeck was one of the special and memorable parts in the novel. Their story is not perfect but these two lonely people living in a New York devoid of understanding proved that love exists in different forms. And it is real.

But amidst all of it, Sam in the end chose not to be freed by his Escapist and continue living in his box, ignoring the golden key.

The League of the Golden Key

downloadThe Amazing Kavalieri eventually returned and got his golden key to be freed from his past through his son, named Tomas in memory of his brother. His return was neither courageous nor self-determined but rather of fate and the love for his son and the girl he left behind.

Sam’s golden key was handed to him in the same way as his cousin. He did not pursue it, or thought of coming out, but rather freedom was given to him in a most humiliating way but one he eventually grabbed as an opportunity for another life.

The novel is full of events which actually occurred in history, meeting famous artists, coinciding with the events in America during and after the great war. Chabon’s style made the readers feel that they are indeed walking through that era, alongside Sam and Clay, fighting evil with the Escapist and making magic along the way.


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