One upshot of my neighborhood is a steady supply of stoop books. All through spring and summer people leave out stacks with desperate “take me” signs and take some I do. Mostly these are contemporary books I’ve vaguely heard of, but a few times I’ve found glittering reader booty. That was the case when I spotted Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay from a half block away.
So I says, “Outta my way!” Even though my boyfriend was the only one around. I never ran so fast in clogs before.
It’s 1939 when young Josef Kavalier arrives from Prague via Japan at his cousin Sammy Clay’s cramped Brooklyn apartment. This is the beginning of Joe and Sammy’s friendship and creative partnership, two ships that carry them through soaring peaks of professional success to the depths of personal loss.
Right away your mind fills in what is likely happening to Joe’s parents, younger brother, mentor and everyone else he’s ever loved with all you’ve ever read of Nazi-occupied Europe. Then you go back and learn exactly how Joe managed to escape. It’s an emotional read, but it’s also hard to put down.
Naturally Joe is a brooding man, saving every penny to get his family out of Czechoslovakia. It’s a hopeful plan in an almost hopeless time. Before his own escape, Joe sneaks back into his family’s old apartment after they’ve been forced to move, and looks at their belongings packed into neat boxes.
The labels had been lettered lovingly; his father had always expressed that emotion best through troubling with details.
While the holocaust is unfolding an ocean away, life is booming in NYC, and Joe and Sammy are in the heart of it all. The two share a mutual love for drawing, though Joe is clearly the artist and Sammy the story man. They happen to dive into the world of comic books just as Superman is grabbing the imaginations and dimes of young boys everywhere.
We follow Joe and Sammy through the Golden Years as their own masked superhero rises and Joe’s artistic style evolves. Movies like Citizen Kane heavily influence his hand, venturing from flat grid-like panels to forced perspectives, playing with layout and shadows. Somewhere along his path of fighting Nazi’s on the page and Germans in NYC’s streets, Joe starts to make a new life for himself. He even falls in love. But he never forgets or stops trying to reach those he left behind.
If they could not move Americans to anger against Hitler, then Joe’s existence, the mysterious freedom that had been granted to him and denied to so many others, had no meaning.
Oh, man. You hit a point midway through when Joe’s efforts to help his family, and his cousin and girlfriend’s efforts to help him are so taut it feels like the story will snap apart at any moment. Readers already know that things abroad will continue to get far worse. The plot bounces along and out of the Golden Years too quickly.
Survivors’ guilt is compounded by Joe’s success defeating Hitler in his own fictional world. His position in this story is gut wrenching. Atrocities are occurring in the center of his world, but when he first arrives in NYC these events are barely on the periphery for the rich and privileged people around him. At the same time, every dip of sorrow and darkness also has moments of love and courage. The last quarter drags a bit and the end very much felt like Chabon entered the room rubbing his hands saying, “Let’s wrap this up.”
The book isn’t perfect, but it has greatness in it. Overall, I loved reading this. There are a few fun parts and I’m always up for historical fiction set in New York.