Even though it’s about the golden age of superhero comics and comic book artists (the ’30s and ’40s) in New York City, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bawn), won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so you know that it’s also about a lot more.
Plunging readers deep into the mash-up of art and commerce that was the pulp fiction and the comic book world at the time, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has stories that take place in pre-World War II Prague, where the book’s hero, Josef (“Joe”) Kavalier, was born before he is shipped across the sea to his cousin Sammy Klayman’s mother’s house in Brooklyn, and also in far-flung U.S. Army outposts during the war.
Joe Kavalier can draw; his cousin Sammy has ideas. Together they become an almost unstoppable comic book force, tapping their own unrealized longings to create superheroes who can do amazing things – except fly, because Superman already had a lock on that particular superpower – starting with the Escapist. Joe wants to make money to save his family from Hitler and persuade Americans that it’s time to enter the war, as news filters in about the German army taking over Europe and what is happening to the Jews in Czechoslovakia and other countries. Sammy – in awe of his older cousin’s talents (Joe is also a trained magician and escape artist.) – does all he can to help, hustling for work for them both and working nights and weekends, setting his private, non-commercial work aside year after year. When Rosa, a talented artist in her own right, enters the picture, the two cousins, who are already pretty conflicted and extremely busy with work, have a third person’s thoughts and feelings to be concerned about.
This story contains countless references to comic-book history and legends (I didn’t know which were real and which fictional, and it didn’t seem to matter), Jewish legends, stage magic, actual historical events, and the places and neighborhoods of New York City. Short, pulp-style stories are interspersed to interrupt and supplement the main story, and also humor. So much humor, permeated with sadness. It’s a hard book to describe…
Here’s a review quote from the back of an early paperback edition that says it all:
“The depth of Chabon’s thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness, and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement.” — The New York Times Book Review
At 27 hours long, the audiobook edition – narrated by David Colacci – is truly spectacular, and deserves a prize of its own. (Here’s one it did receive: a Listen Up Award from Publishers’ Weekly.) Joe’s broken English improves over time, but his deeply Czech inflection never goes away. Sammy’s swaggering Brooklyn accent sounds natural and just right for Sammy. Rosa’s voice also hits the right note of sharpness and softness blended together. Watch out you don’t accidentally pick up the abridged version. Somehow, for the abridged version, the book was cut down by two-thirds – making it only nine hours long!
Listen to an excerpt here.
If you’ve already listened to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and liked the time period and the stories of the Jewish families in the book, you might like the audiobook The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, an alternative history of WWII America – read to perfection by Ron Silver.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Chabon, Michael, author
Colacci, David, narrator
27 hours, unabridged
Disclosure: I borrowed the audiobook edition of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay from the public library.
This book is the first one on my TBR Pile Challenge 2014 list that I’ve read and reviewed.