Sunday, October 15, 2000
In two lively novels and two tight collections of short stories, Michael Chabon has established himself as a writer of rare wit, eloquent prose and uncanny charm. The knocks against him, normally by older critics, suggested that Chabon lacked intellectual heft, and some unfairly lumped him with young turks such as the model-obsessed Jay McInerney and "enfant terrible" Bret Easton Ellis.
Chabon's new novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," (Random House, $24) however, should land the author squarely on the A-List of American fiction writers. Easily his most intricate, nuanced, ambitious and mature work, Chabon's Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay escapades through the pulpy world of comic books from the late 1930s through the early 1950s is, quite simply, fictional magic.
Chabon employs the theme of liberation to tell the story of Sammy Clay, a shy Brooklyn boy scared of his own mediocrity, and his immigrant cousin Joe Kavalier, a quiet young man trained as an artist, who is fixated on getting his family out of Nazi-controlled Prague.
With Sammy's story savvy and Joe's intense artistic skills the duo creates a comic superhero well-suited for the frightening times of pre-World War II, "The Escapist." The masked hero, donning a blue suit with a golden skeleton key emblazoned on his chest, fights to free the oppressed around the globe. A not-so-thinly-veiled attack on the Nazi regime's military and political aggression, the first cover of "The Escapist" features Hitler getting socked in the jaw.
The trouble is, Joe finds himself partially seduced by American popular culture and the longer he stays, draws and makes money (not to mention the worse things get in Prague), the guiltier he feels about being helpless to save his family, especially his younger brother, Thomas. For a time, Rosa Saks, a gorgeous young surrealist painter, salves Joe's pain, but her unconditional love isn't enough to keep Joe's demons at bay.
Since the story has the tremendous twists and stunning surprises of old fashioned comics, one can't give away too much of the plot without ruining the story's wizardry. Suffice it to say the novel's al-most epic sweep is peppered with startling discoveries, fist-fights, war, magic tricks, secret codes, fiscal hijinks, po-lice raids, sinking ships, cameos by Orson Welles, Salvador Dali (in a diving outfit!) and Delores del Rio, and love of every variety.
Optimism and pain
What endows "Kavalier & Clay" its strength is Chabon's giving optimism in the face of abject horror. Young Joe escapes Prague by helping his magic teacher, locate and move the city's giant Golem out of the city and away from the grubby hands of German functionaries. The Golem, a symbol of freedom throughout the novel, serves as a repository for the suffering of the Prague Jews, and late in the novel, Joe, still haunted by his inability to rescue his relatives, returns to the story of the Golem for a serious, adult comic-book masterpiece.
Chabon's also relies on those most enduring of themes ï¿½ love and friendship. Whether Joe's struggles with himself, Sam's selflessness, or Rosa's longing for her vanished Joe, Chabon fills his pages with introspection, quiet yearning and overwhelming feelings of loneliness and heartbreak.
Take for example this passage where the Es-capist, suddenly not a comic entity, but a live person, attempts to jump off the Empire State Building.
"He wore a pair of soft gold boots, rather shapeless, with thin rubber soles. The trunks were nubbly and had a white streak on the seat, as if their wearer had once learned against a freshly painted doorjamb. The tights were laddered and stretched out at the knees, the jersey sagged badly at the elbows, and the rubber soles of the flimsy boots were cracked and spotted with grease."
At places like this, Chabon's skills as a writer overwhelm readers, as we hear the bittersweet strains of hope despite the shabby appearance of the superhero.
But Chabon tempers the accumulated internal pain of his characters with rollicking shtick, capturing the roller-coaster ride of urban boyhood with surprising accuracy, zippy prose and taut scenes of outrageous humor.
The author has also done his homework, providing incredible historical detail and a thorough knowledge of the history of comic books and the art of magic and escape.
Imagination and depth
Occasionally readers may see the dramatic seams of the story, and certainly Chabon's generous use of words such as "aetataureate" will send even the most vocabulary-enhanced readers heading for the dictionary (and it better be a good one, or the words won't be there).
These, of course, are insanely minor quibbles and tend to be overshadowed by Chabon's luxurious prose, cheeky dialogue and intelligent treatment of the themes of freedom, responsibility and faith.
"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," chock full of amiable goofs, bumbling bad guys, intrigue and, above all, love, showcases Chabon's adroit skills as a master stylist, the range of his rapturous imagination and the depth and generosity of his understanding of human passion.
ï¿½ Mark Luce, who lives in Lawrence, serves on the Board of Directors for the National Book Critics Circle. He reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.