A Couple of Boy Geniuses

In the fall of 1939, a young Jewish man by the name of Josef Kavalier escaping the nascent horrors of World War II in Prague, arrives at his aunt’s home in Brooklyn, New York, after a harrowing, Houdini-esque journey. His cousin Sam Clayman – peddler of dreams, insatiable in his appetite for big schemes – wakes up in the next morning to find himself cohabiting with what seems to be an artistic genius. Thus is one of the most famous (fictitious) lines of comic books created – The Escapist, the man with the golden key to freedom.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a book I’ve been reading for months. Not because I had trouble finishing it, but because I occasionally had trouble continuing to read it. Chabon’s writing has the impact of a well-placed punch, emotionally speaking; his sympathy and utter tenderness towards his characters – no matter how despicable they might appear to the inhabitants of his worlds – make them all acutely, terribly, human. Empathizing with them is not at all difficult.

Chabon tends to infuse his writing with a kind of wry humour, as gentle as it is accurate. The most banal descriptions get the same precise treatment as the most grandiose. Observe:

“Eat,” Ethel snapped, depositing in front of Joe a stack of black rectangles and a pool of yellow mucilage that she felt obliged to identify for him as toast and eggs. -p72

With pugilistic quickness, he crowded Joe against an iron pillar, crooked an arm around Joe’s neck, and gave him a swift punch in the stomach. Joe’s breath deserted his body in a single hard gust and he pitched forward, striking his chin on the concrete platform. His eyeballs seemed to clang in their sockets. He felt as if someone had opened an umbrella inside his rib cage. He waited, flopped on his belly, unblinking as a fish, to see if he would ever again be able to draw breath. -p192. 

At the heart of the story is the idea of escape. Houdini, the Jewish community, the futile rage of Joe Kavalier and the humiliation of being gay in Depression-era New York, for Sam Clay. The construction and golden era of comic books themselves are, as Chabon points out later, a kind of escapism. Whether or not the public accepts in the 1950s that underwear-clad men with bulging muscles sweeping across the skylines of New York-esque cities is a form of escape, no matter how juvenile, to the millions of young adults who consume them, is beside the point; the concept of power, charm, intelligence and magic being liberations from the daily grind is more than understandable (to Chabon and his writer/artist characters, at least).

But there’s also a third kind of story, besides the tales of the comic book era and the growth of Kavalier and Clay. It’s the idea of family. A few main characters in this book are brought together, torn apart, reunited and eventually re-assembled into some semblance of a community.  From Joe Kavalier’s perspective – for me, at least – the story is of how he lost one family and gained another, against every possible odd in existence.

I’m not sure what to say about this book. I’m not sure I can even recommend it, seeing as I’m still reeling from the after effects. It’s a hell of a ride. It’s a book of complicated stories and emotions woven together with a terrible undercurrent of sadness and humour. It’s worth it, of course (although I dearly wish someone would’ve drawn some accompanying comics to match) – but you’ll need to brace yourself a bit.