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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a novel about the Golden Age of Comics, World War II, the Jewish-American experience of the 1940s, magicians and their tricks, New York City, and probably a dozen other topics. And yet, it is a novel that relies on the same timeless themes that all great novels do – the boundless passion and excitement of youth, love and jealousy and betrayal, family, guilt, and the challenges that come from both not being able to reach our dreams and from how to move on once we finally do reach them.
It is a novel of well over 600 pages that is densely packed – Chabon’s two title characters are entwined into the real happenings of the time so thoroughly that we not only meet Orson Welles and Stan Lee as we journey, but the historical influence of young Kavalier and Clay must be imparted to us through careful and clever footnotes. The world-building done by Chabon serves to mimic the creation of the comic book worlds that his main characters engage in throughout the book. His characters – and this is a revelation quite blatantly stated in the title – are the superheroes of his book about comics.
Joseph Kavalier is Jewish youth from Europe who, via machinations of his parents and community, manages to make it to America just as Nazi Germany tightens its restrictions on his people. Samuel Clay is his cousin, a scrawny boy with aspirations of drawing and writing comic books. Their initial run of triumph is related as are so many stories of youthful exuberance, and it is an infectious feeling to read of their successes.
Chabon manages to avoid allowing their very different motivations to lessen their partnership; in various situations where they are confronted by exterior forces, they remain faithful to the work they’ve done and the partnership they’ve created. As they grow up inside the comic book world, they experience romance and the various trappings that accompany early adulthood – and yet all the while they remain true to each other.
Throughout the novel – but particularly in the latter portions, Chabon expertly blends his careful research of the era with fantastically vivid descriptions and callbacks to the early parts of the novel. At every point, the actions of the characters remain true to their initial writing, even as their circumstances are invariably altered. In the end, Chabon wraps the novel in a befitting and satisfying way, moving unquestionably toward a very different 1950’s and 60’s future, but left with the touches befitting a novel meant to honor such fantastical stories as those of Harry Houdini and the Golden Age comics.
I will acknowledge that this book probably isn’t for everyone, but I found it to be incredibly well-done. If you are considering trying something a little different, especially if you have a fondness for superheroes or comic-books, I highly recommend this novel.