Enthralling Books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

ChabonThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

A smiling Amazon box arrived on the porch just in time for me to pack my new paperback copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in my carry-on bag. As my ride to the 2008 San Diego Comic Con approached cruising altitude I opened the book that my wife recommend, and settled into a rare streak of four uninterrupted hours.

The tale begins at a comic book convention where Sam Clay speaks to fans in a panel discussion much like the ones I would soon be standing in line for. Sam is co-creator of the Escapist, a character whose popularity rivals Superman in Chabon’s alternate reality. The other half of the creative team is Sam’s cousin, Josef “Joe” Kavalier. The duo met in 1939 when they were teenagers, just days after Joe had escaped Nazi-occupied Prague and moved into Sam and his mother’s Brooklyn apartment.

In those days, Sam’s career was off to a slow start at Empire Novelties, a mail-order company where his duties sometimes entailed ad paste-ups and product illustrations for things like pocket cameras and midget radios. Again, I delighted in the way this paralleled my own life. At the time, I was the sole freelance graphic artist for the century-old S.S. Adams company, the outfit that pioneered the American prank and magic trick industry.

Sam, hoping to score a job for his cousin, asked him, “Can you draw the sound of a fart?” I perked up at the familiarity of this challenge. I’d been there myself, questioning the proper ratio of gas clouds, and the optimal number of stink waves. Josef’s solution: five horizontal lines sprinkled with stars and curlicues and broken musical notation. Absolutely beautiful.

While my role in the novelty biz was the miraculous manifestation of a childhood dream, Sam and Joe were eager to make the leap into the superhero game. “Big money” was Sammy’s goal whereas Josef was looking for a means to rescue his family from Hitler. Their creative process from concept to business plan to pitch meeting was a joy to listen in on. Their hero-making efforts turn out to be wildly successful, primarily because they understood that a character’s origin and motivation is more important than his costume and super powers.

This principle applies to the thrilling origin story of Josef himself, who possesses all the qualities of a great superhero. Not unlike heavyweights such as Batman and Spider-Man, Joe is driven by tragic family circumstances, and has an arsenal of powers which include sleight of hand, lock-picking, stealth, incredible courage,and the ability to draw perfect flatulence.

Between chapters I paused to stare at clouds through the rectangular window, and wallow in the affection I was feeling for the story. No doubt, my own travel-based excitement was tangled with my opinion, but this type of subject matter is not often handled by such capable hands and executed with such beauty, and attention to detail.

By the time my plane landed in California, Sam and Josef’s career was just taking off. I had yet to encounter the matters of love, failure, isolation, and family that ushered the book into Pulitzerland. But those first four hours perfectly matched the enthusiasm, hope, and sense of possibility that is often present when one begins an epic adventure, or embarks on a week at Comic Con.

Buy The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay on Amazon


  1. +1 – I heartily recommend this wonderful book. I spent a few nights up way too late because I couldn’t put it down.

  2. This was the first Pulitzer-winner I read and I honestly dreaded it a little. Kind of thought I might be “taking my medicine” and reading a book I “should be” reading. And holy moly was I wrong! 
    This book is great but also- REALLY goddamn fun! Adventure! Sex! Field expedient aircraft repairs!
    Fabulous.Chabon is now one of my favorite writers. 

    Also, if you like noir -at all- get The Yiddish Policemen’s Union right fucking now. You will thank me.

  3. I couldn’t agree more.  This is a fantastic book, and well deserving of the Pulitzer it won.

    For those into comic books (like myself) after you’ve ready the novel there’s a series of “The Escapist” comics that Chabon collaborated on that are also a heck of a lot of fun.

    I also agree with jackrabbitslim, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is Jewish Noir at it’s finest.

  4. I got through 50 pages before I had to stop.  Chabon’s books are like putting on a temp tattoo and etching around it with battery acid. 

  5. I’m glad that people enjoyed the book but I couldn’t stand it. The book was a chore to read and I finally had to put it down. Chabon is to in love with his words and his own writing to the point that it gets in the way of story telling. At one point he takes a page and a half to tell you that the character walked across the room.  Sorry, couldn’t finish it.

  6. I hope to see a movie adaptation some day. I think a good filmmaker could have a lot of fun with the sequences where the lives of the characters begin to blur with the stories in the Escapist comics, maybe something akin to Tarsem Sing’s “The Fall” (a gorgeous and underrated film IMHO).

  7. Yes, I love this book because it’s so brilliantly self-contradictory.  It’s a novel about the great early Jewish comic book authors that doesn’t mention any of them (sort of). It’s a Holocaust novel that doesn’t contain the Holocaust.  It’s a WWII army novel with no fighting.  It’s a McCarthy era novel that’s not really about that. 

    It’s not always brilliant prose, but it’s always a brilliant world.

  8. Maybe it would’ve been enthralling at half its actual length (639 pages). As is, I can’t agree that it’s enthralling. Several parts were a slog. As a lifelong comic fan, I was disappointed.

    Incidentally, this may be the only mainstream novel to describe the “flavor” of a character’s rectum.

  9. One of my favorites, and the first to mind when someone asks for book recommendations. I truly believe it is the Great American Novel, covering immigration, invention, comic books, WWII and the creation of suburbia, all huge parts of the armature of the collective mythology of the United States.

    1.  I haven’t read Kavalier & Clay but loved The Yidddish Policeman’s Union so much I can’t shut up about it. Does that mean I’ll hate Kavalier & Clay? We’ll see…

  10. Here’s another vote for Kavalier & Clay. It’s a wonderful yarn. It really evokes the era. I’ll also put in a vote for the Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and if you want a simple adventure movie, try Gentlemen of the Road.

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