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michael chabon's manhattan fantasy

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon
(Random House, 639 pages)
amazing adventures of kavalier and clay cover
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There are few cities that make as compelling a setting as New York. Recently, Caleb Carr’s bestselling highbrow trash thrillers set in Knickerbocker Manhattan made a magic kingdom out of midtown mansions and Bowery slums, taking a page from Mark Helprin’s eighties fantasy A Winter’s Tale, which was set in a timeless New York where the domed ceiling of Grand Central Station was literally a gateway to the stars. 

Michael Chabon manages a similar trick, his inspiration coming from New York’s comic book doppelgangers: Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham City. It’s a neat trick, beautifully managed, for a novel set in the early days of the superhero comic. 

The novel begins when Josef Kavalier, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, arrives in the middle of the night at the home of his cousin, Sammy Klayman, after a wildly improbably escape that took him over halfway around the world. Joe’s talent as an artist and Sammy’s intimate knowledge of pop culture conventions combine in their creation of a comic-book superhero, The Escapist, whose immediate success is due in no small part to burgeoning war fervor. Their hero becomes the outlet for Joe’s revenge fantasies against the Nazis, and Sammy’s ticket out of a stifling, extended adolescence his mother’s Brooklyn apartment.

Joe’s escape from Prague, in a coffin containing the Golem, a mythical Jewish proto-hero made of mud from the bed of the Moldau river, and his later military service in a bleak outpost in the Antarctic, are the only diversions the novel takes from its New York setting. Chabon’s New York is painstakingly evoked, from dizzily bohemian Greenwich Village to the city’s physical centerpiece, the Empire State Building. The author’s obvious, and joyous, effort in re-creating a vanished era is probably the book’s major virtue, inasmuch as his descriptions of the city at night from the observation deck of the city’s tallest skyscraper, or a visit to the half-ruined remains of the 1939 World’s Fair, are unfortunately more compelling than his characters.

Joe and Sammy, real escapists trying, respectively, to free themselves from a tragic past and the closet, are somehow less compelling than the setting, and the novel sets a fantastic, page-turning pace without ever delving as deeply into their characters as it does in its descriptions of a cartoonists’ crash pad, a society bar mitzvah, or life in a post-war suburb. When, at the end, Joe and Sammy finally manage their escapes, I put down the book with barely a thought for them, but rather sad at having to leave their vivid, grand, heroic world.

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis