By Troy Patterson
Updated September 29, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

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 and 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.

You could deride Chabon’s prose for its purpleness, but you’d still have to concede that his style is as striking a shade of any color as you’re likely to find around these days. When Sammy kisses his lover, ”the stubble on their chins scrape[s] with a soft electric rasp.” One glorious morning in Manhattan, the sky is ”as blue as the ribbon on a prize-winning lamb.” The early comic-book cover ”was a poster advertising a dream-movie, with a running time of two seconds, that flickered to life in the mind and unreeled in splendor just before one opened to the stapled packet of coarse paper inside and the lights came up.” Chabon’s got an eye for the spine-tingling image and a near-perfect ear.

Elsewhere, the novel advances not through plot or language but the march of time. In these instances of contrivance, the author succumbs to an affliction I’ll call Unfortunately Gratuitous Historicism (UGH). Its local symptoms include conspicuous cameos by the likes of Salvador Dalí (at a party in whose honor Joe meets Rosa Saks, a lovely surrealist who melts his clock) and Orson Welles (at the premiere of whose Citizen Kane K. and C. swoon in artistic epiphany). Also, Chabon, who has researched this novel assiduously, is sometimes too eager to show his work. He distracts us from his own performance with a few superfluous flourishes.

These are complaints about a writer whose unevenness seems inextricable from his undeniable brilliance. Kavalier and 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. A-

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

  • Book
  • Michael Chabon
  • Random House