THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY. By Michael Chabon. Random House. 636 pages. $26.95.
Less than a skip and a jump into The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, the acclaimed author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, his heroes, Sam Clay and Josef Kavalier, young cousins from different shores of the Atlantic, are on their way to fame and fortune and eventually, decades later, legend status in the comic book industry. Before it's over, they will run across Orson Welles and Stan Lee and Eleanor Roosevelt. Kavalier will save Salvador Dali's life. They will fight in wars and have children and sweat it out before Congress and literally, thwart evil plots. But first, they need a signature superhero to launch their careers.
Half-man, half-bird. No. A bear man? Nah. Bug people. No. “Underwater guys,” Clay says, dreaming of superheroes on a street corner in lower Manhattan.
A Hawkman? A Foxman? A Sharkman? No.
How about a radio wave man who fights bad guys by transmitting himself to the scene of the crime. No, Clay answers himself, a bad guy would merely have to stay away from radios to continue his evil ways undisturbed. How about a baboon with a kaleidoscope rear end that dazzles bad guys into submission?
Kavalier and Clay are budding comic book authors at a time when no pretense is given whatsoever to the idea that comics can be anything but trivial. Nothing is expected but profit. Clay is average, a Brooklyn kid who loves comic books. But Kavalier is something else, an art school veteran and an escapee from Nazi Germany, smuggled out in the bottom compartment of a coffin carrying, in the top compartment and dressed in a suit, a statue. The stuff of comic books.
It's 1939. The market is wide open for innovation. Superman rip-offs are everywhere. Kavalier and Clay are looking for something new, something that transcends the subject at hand - superheroes - and with this huge, sprawling stab at the prototypical Great American Novel, so is Chabon.
The comic book business here is more than a hook. Though windy, elaborate, convoluted, unwieldy, and often as implausible as Kavalier and Clay's scenarios, Chabon's book has the snap-kick of those first five-cent epics. He uses the same bouncy, pop language and rhythms of comics - SLAM! WHAM! Slapdash schemes cut through every chapter. Nick-of-time rescues seem to occur every few chapters. It would be audacious, and annoying, if Chabon wasn't so imaginative and the detail he finds on every New York corner, from the stitching on a suit to the view from the Empire State Building at night, so fresh.
Comics themselves recede into the background. Slap shut Kavalier & Clay and set it down - set it, because at 636 pages it's hefty - and the novel seems to have been about ... well, everything and more, but specifically, and in no particular order: the comic book industry, the immigrant experience, World War II, art, women in art, art and commerce, anti-Semitism, jazz, mid-century New York City architecture, censorship, the golden age of radio, Citizen Kane, surrealism, homosexuality, murder, inspiration, growing up, magic, and loss.
A novel that claims to be about America itself might sound precious. But the idea, though never plainly evident, is there from the first chapter. Kavalier and Clay cobble together a superhero from bits and pieces of what they see around them, by sticking their wet fingers in the air, so to speak. They invent The Escapist, a Houdini-like good guy devoted, around the clock, to smashing the chains that bind freedom everywhere. For the cover of Issue No. 1, they want The Escapist cold-cocking Hitler in the chops. You guys are going to cause problems, says the owner of the novelty company who hires them, and he's right. There are bomb threats and assassins and law suits, and later, inevitably, a Congressional subcommittee. Chabon spins the book in more narrative directions than a vaudeville entertainer twirling plates.
He loops his characters through 15 years of the American experience, and puts them in harm's way time and time again. But he loves them too much to do them any real physical harm and so he ties up every ending and rambling plot line too neatly. Just like in a comic book. Still you forgive Chabon. He's less interested in fists of steel than what Kavalier and Clay learn about truth, justice, and the American Way.