On his website, Michael Chabon, author of ”The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and ”Wonder Boys,” has posted his rejected six-page proposal for Fox’s recent screen adaptation of ”The X-Men.” Restrained, challenging, and intelligent, the scenario is completely unthinkable as a summer blockbuster; it reveals a mind besotted with comics for their superficial thrills and undercover complexities. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a novel about a duo of comic book artists working in the medium’s golden age, that mind thrums along beautifully.
When we meet Sam Clay, he’s still Sammy Klayman, the son of a psychiatric nurse and a vaudeville strongman, a 17 year old Jew daydreaming of literary glory, nursing a jones for the pulps, and holding down a day job as a clerk for a novelty wholesaler. His muscular torso rests on ”soda-straw legs,” the legacy of polio. And — zzzwap!!! — one night in 1939, Sammy’s sharing his Brooklyn bed with his cousin Joe from Czechoslovakia. In Prague, Josef Kavalier had studied drawing at the Academy of Fine Art and the art of escape with a veteran illusionist. In the first of the novel’s vivid set pieces, Joe relies on his Houdini in training to spring himself from the Nazi occupation. He lands in Gotham itching to earn the money that might free the family he left behind.
The kid can draw; Superman had begun to zoom through Metropolis just the year before, to lucrative effect; Sammy’s boss at Empire Novelty has an ”avidity for unburdening America’s youth of the oppressive national mantle of tedium, ten cents at a time.” Kavalier and the self-christened Clay create the Escapist, a masked man who — skeleton key emblazoned on the chest of his blue union suit — ventured from his deluxe lair under Empire City to rid the world of an axis of villainy called the Iron Chain. Their hero is a hit, and so begins a string of great escapes, wild escapades, and dime store escapism. Joe does battle with the Germans — in print, on the streets, and, in one berserk section, Antarctica — while Sam grows into his art and his sexuality. Like Chabon’s earlier novels, this book concerns the friendship of a gay man and a straight one.
Chabon is a writer whose unevenness seems inextricable from his undeniable brilliance. ”Kavalier & Clay” is over 600 pages long, but it’s not an epic novel. Rather, it’s a long, lyrical one that’s exquisitely patterned rather than grandly plotted, composed with detailed scenes, and spotted with some rapturous passages of analysis and others that give lavish accounts of superheroic derring do. The book is, in a sophisticated way, comic bookish. It’s all zings and zigzags, bold strokes and curlicues and peculiar coinckidincks. It’s like a graphic novel inked in words and starring the author himself in the lead role: Wonder Boy.