"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is a work that's difficult to describe. The 600+ pages cover the years from 1937 until 1954 in the lives of Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clayman, two Jewish cousins and best friends. Kavalier flees Prague in 1937 under intriguing circumstances (that are too good to give away), and ends up with Sammy's family (Sammy's mother and both boys' grandmother) in New York City. They're poor, they're approximately the same age (17 at the beginning of the novel), and they both have dreams of bringing the rest of Josef's family to America before the anti-Semitism burbling in Central Europe does more harm to the family.
Through happenstance, careful planning, and skill, the two boys end up creating a super hero comic book. Their hero, "The Escapist," fights crimes with the talents of an escape artist (a career that Joe once aspired to) and eventually superhuman strength. He wears a mask (of course), and a blue suit with a gold key emblem emblazoned on his chest. The book uses as a template the careers of many Golden Age comic book artists, but especially that of Siegel and Schuster, the creators of the greatest of all, Superman. Joe and Sammy work together, and The Escapist is catapulted to the top of the comics heap, originally conceived as a Nazi-fighter (before fighting Nazis was cool) and an outlet for Joe's rage and impotence, and an outlet for Sammy's creativity. They build up an entire comics company, Empire Comics, and their fights with editors, radio producers, and serial producers fuel the need for conflict in the book--as there aren't many between these two friends.
The novel follows them and their comic book creation through World War II, and into the 1950's...and it's not a smooth ride for anyone. It involves marriage, children, mysterious disappearances, and cameos from the elite of the time--everyone from Orson Welles to Salvador Dali (who nearly drowns at a "surrealist party"....and he doesn't drown in water...or even liquid for that matter) shows up, along with a Jewish Golem, Eleanor Roosevelt, and eight enormous braided rubber bands. We travel to many locations, the most exotic I've seen in a terrestrial book, but I don't want to give them away, because the locales themselves are major twists of the plot.
Now, just because this is ostensibly about comic books, many of you will be turned off--don't be. That's like saying you're not interested in "Death of a Salesman" because you don't like...uh...sales. The book is about human experience--about love, death, fear, regret, longing...but the two major players (of many) happen to be a comic book writer and artist. Now, if you happen to BE a fan of comic books, you'll love the scenes where comic books are discussed--Chabon references the Greats of all time: Schuster and Siegel themselves, Bob Kane, Gil Kane, Gardner Fox, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee....and uses them sparingly (for non-fans), but some of you may recognize the creators of Li'l Orphan Annie, Superman, Batman, Flash, Hawkman, The Human Torch, Captain America, The Sub-Mariner...this truly WAS a Golden Age; and although Chabon is careful to point out that "Golden Ages always seem to be in the past," he also says this was indeed a golden time for these people. So recently out of the Depression, not yet subjected to the full horrors of World War II, the bulk of the book is suffused with a hope that transcends the material.
Now, let's just say you're not a fan of Super-Heroes, of Escape Artists, of New York City, of the 1940's, or of Jews. Why on earth are you still reading this review? And why should you pick up "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?" This is quite honestly the BEST novel I've read in a long time, possibly years. There were moments that made my eyes well up with tears, and scenes that had me laughing out loud. Chabon is literate, and has a beautiful style. His vocabulary is enormous, and it was delightful to read a novel that had words in it that I had to actually look up--or gather meaning from context. It was such a wonderful, active, immersing experience to read this book.
I give it my absolute highest recommendation. It made me want to create something important. Something lasting. Something I can be proud of. And I already have the cutest baby ever made, but this made me want to get out there and LIVE. This is a joyous (even when heartbreaking) book that you should make a part of your library. Read it. Another quick recommendation: "The Losers Club: Complete Restored Edition" by Richard Perez -- a much shorter but lively, very entertaining book I enjoyed .