Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize
I've had this book sitting on my bookshelf, collecting dust for way too long. I finally tricked myself into reading it by requesting it from the library. I've found that I don't have that same sense of immediacy with a book I own as I do with one that has a due date. Another confession, I think I didn't get around to this sooner because I did try to read The Yiddish Policemen's Union and just couldn't get into it. I did really enjoy Summerland, though.
I wasn't sure how wrapped up in the story I would get, but I gave it a try and I'm very glad that I did. I knew nothing about the comics world, which in this world of comic book movies and Comic-Con, I'm sure puts me strongly in a minority, or a very laid back, chill and quiet majority. And, really, who ever heard of one of those. I came late to the graphic novel party, but have found some of the most thought-provoking and moving stories told using this format. Maus, anyone? That is pure genius and it's just the tip of what seems to be a very large iceberg. I was kind of surprised that there was no graphic element to Kavalier and Clay because I would have loved to have seen Josef Kavalier and Rosa Saks' work. The imagery was so well defined by Chabon that the works seemed like they should be real and accessible to the reader.
Josef Kavalier, barely escaping from Nazi occupied Prague turns up dirty, hungry and cold at the apartment of his grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousin in New York. He was training to be an artist, after he gave up his training as an magician/escape artist in the vein of Harry Houdini. Of course, Joe's escape from Prague was the greatest he, or his teacher could have ever conceived. Despite having all the proper paperwork, he was forced from the train set to take him on his way to America and freedom. He winds up leaving the country in the hidden compartment of a coffin, the rest of it contained the Golem of Prague, made up to look like a very tall man.
Joe goes through most of the world, before finally turning up on the door of his grandmother, who is living with his aunt, uncle and cousin, the Klaymans. 18 year old Sammy Klayman (later known professionally as Clay) is an idea man and Josef's talent as an artist gives life to the greatest idea he's ever had. He wants to get into the comic book business and he thinks his boss at the novelty company may be able to help him. Joe and Sammy's talents are legendary. They manage to create a stable of talented artists to help them bring their vision to fruition. Together they create The Escapist, a superhero to fulfill Joe's wishes.
Despite the fact that they have more money than they thought they would make and are amassing a great following, there's quite a bit that's just not going their way. The deal they got with Empire Comics doesn't make them masters of their creations, just someone else's employees, and not necessarily entitled to any of the money they earn for the company. They've also got to deal with the fact that Joe's main goal was to bring his family to America, starting with his brother Thomas, and that is far harder than he ever imagined.
It's no surprise that this book earned the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year it was published. The book offers a revealing look at World War II, occupied Europe, the growing concern in the United States about entering the war, the clamor of the people who were pushing for a decisive measure against the Nazis, the birth of the comic book superhero, just to name a few. Josef's need to save his family and his despair at his failings, as well as his unquenchable anger at Germans in general threatens to swallow our gentle artist whole.
Then you have Sam. Sam is smart and creative and has what it takes to go really far. He's not a happy man and he's got plenty on his shoulders. His relationship with Joe is, by far, the most important in his life. He should be living the American dream. He's got initiative and ideas and the ability to see them all through, but he's often a victim of the same system that he's raising to art.
Despite the characters, the story, the dreams come true and dashed, there's even more to chew on with this book. I still can't get the golem out of my head. The idea that our superheroes are really golems fascinates me. They are created by man, they are blessed and sent to do their creator's bidding. For all I know, this was the intention of the superhero comic book creators, but it all feels new and in need of exploration to me.
As an added bonus, here's a video that, I think, is an interview with the author, about the book. It's a long one, settle in if you plan on watching!