The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay Summary

Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay

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The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay Summary

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Jewish American writer Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, for his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The story unfolds in the period leading up to World War II and continues through the war years and beyond. The main characters are two Jewish cousins living in New York City, seeking success in the emerging comic book industry. One is the artist Joe (Josef) Kavalier who is a Czech refugee, and the other Sammy Clay, a writer born in Brooklyn.

It is 1939; Joe is nineteen when he arrives in New York City to live with his cousin, the seventeen-year-old Sammy. Joe has escaped from Prague by hiding in a coffin that was intended to smuggle a work of art, Golem of Prague, out of Germany. Joe was forced to leave his family behind but he finds that he and Sammy have many common interests, including their creative endeavors, and a mutual connection to the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Joe had studied magic and escape techniques in Prague, which helped him plot his escape. Sammy’s father is a vaudevillian circuit strongman known as the Mighty Molecule.

Sammy is able to help Joe get a job as an illustrator with the Empire Novelty Company when he realizes that he has artistic talent. Sheldon Anapol is the owner of the company and, recognizing the widespread success the Superman character has recently achieved, decides to jump on the bandwagon and enter the comic book industry. To facilitate his entry into the field he decides to utilize the talents of Sammy and Joe. As “Sam Clay” Sammy begins composing stories and Joe takes on the task of illustrating them. Enlisting the aid of a few other teenagers, the duo is able to produce the Amazing Midget Radio Comics. Their creation’s central character is The Escapist, a superhero who fights fascism and is part Houdini, part Batman, and part Captain America. The character is a quick success, which leads to conflict for Sammy and Joe.

In the comic industry, writers and artists receive only a small portion of the revenue generated by their creations and the cousins eventually realize that they are being taken advantage of by the company. This revelation comes slowly to them, as from the start they were passionate about the project and they have other, more pressing concerns. Joe wants to be able to help his family escape from Nazi occupation and has also become romantically involved with a fledgling artist, Rosa Saks. Sammy, meanwhile, is not only anxious to advance his literary career but is grappling with his sexual identity.

Joe’s concern for his family not only motives his success, but is also integral to his work. While the company is not fully supportive of it as an overarching theme, Joe continues to have violent anti-Nazi action form a central part of the comic. He and Rosa grow closer and Joe starts making appearances as a magician at events like bar mitzvahs. His social and professional interests become a source of guilt for him, as he worries about being distracted from his primary concern of helping his family. Joe tries to get his family to safety but his attempts prove futile. In fact, one attempt costs his younger brother his life, as the boat on which he was sailing to the United States was attacked and destroyed by a German U-boat. Deciding to fight the Germans, Joe enlists in the Navy, but finds himself shipped to a base in Antarctica instead. At this point, he is unaware that Rosa is pregnant with his child. In an event that might seem more fitting to a comic book storylines than his own life, a malfunction in a chimney at the naval base causes a carbon monoxide leak that leaves Joe the sole survivor of his unit. Upon returning to New York, he is ashamed and hides out in the Empire State Building, his whereabouts known only to a few fellow magicians.

Sammy has entered a relationship with Tracy Bacon, a handsome male actor playing The Escapist on the radio version of the comic. When Tracy gets the starring role in a motion picture version, he and Sammy move to Hollywood. Their happiness is short-lived, however; while they are in California they attend a party with other gay couples that is raided by local police and the FBI. The abuse he suffers at the hands of the authorities leads Sammy to feel that he cannot live his life openly as a gay man, for fear of what will happen to him. He returns to New York where he marries Rosa and raises her son, Tommy, as his own. They establish what appears to be a typical suburban life.

Eventually, Tommy ends up taking magic lessons from Joe at the Empire State Building. In time Tommy helps to reunite Joe and Sammy who revive their professional partnership. Joe moves in with Sammy, Rosa, and Tommy. Living an “ordinary” family life becomes more complicated when Sammy’s sexual orientation is publically disclosed. Ultimately Sammy departs in the middle of the night without a word.