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Hope Against Hope

THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY A Novel By Michael Chabon; Random House: 644 pp., $26.95

October 08, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Gadzooks! "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." Not since the Celebrated Mr. Kite have such superheroes been trumpeted with such promise and panache. And though Michael Chabon, who burst upon the literary scene 15 years ago with "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," may be no John Lennon, his broadsheet of a title announces a center-ring spectacle as entertaining as any circus act, even without Henry the Horse.

Kavalier is young Josef Kavalier, a child of pre-World War II Prague, born to a professional secular Jewish family, in a time before tragedy. But as he grows into his late teens, the grip of Hitler tightens around his country and his city. It is Josef's boyhood obsession with the legend of the late Houdini and the secrets of locks and chains makes him the likeliest member of the family to escape. From Czechoslovakia to Russia to Japan and finally the United States, Joe uses silence and cunning to enter the land of his exile. And as the son of an endocrinologist and an analyst, it is little wonder that upon arriving in New York, Joe begins to earn his family's ransom by entering the business of comic books.

His partner in art is his American cousin, Sammy Clay (ne Klayman), a teenager afflicted with an overbearing mother and an imagination one step ahead of its time. Together Kavalier & Clay convince Sammy's employer--a purveyor of novelties and trinkets--to dip into the brave new world of comic books. In one caffeine-fueled weekend of invention, the pair create a hero to rival the recently born Superman. And little wonder that the fruit of their pens is a character they call The Escapist. "To all those who toil in the bonds of slavery and, uh, the, the shackles of oppression," Sammy stammers, "he offers the hope of liberation and the promise of freedom!"

The rest is all ripping calendar pages and whirling headlines. From comic books to radio, The Escapist (and a host of companion titles) leads Kavalier & Clay to a life of comfort and the love of beautiful people. But life is hardly a brimming bowl of cherries for our heroes. In the midst of their success they do battle with the Aryan League and the vice squad. And of course Joe has a family back in Prague to avenge. No sooner has one war ended then Kavalier & Clay find themselves in the thick of another, a battle against comic books waged by the All-American guardians of decency in a not-so-distant age when Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman were too young to read much but, well, comic books. And if that weren't enough, there is a specter that, from the first days of their relationship, threatens to come between them, The Golem.

The Golem--like Joe Kavalier, our readers may recall--is a native of Prague, the legendary creation of Rabbi Loew from the mud of the Danube, an Incredible Yiddische Hunk, born to save the Jews from their enemies. Dormant for a number of years, the Golem is having something of a literary comeback in the United States. In recent years, writers as varied as Cynthia Ozick and Pete Hamill have invoked the friendly monster, the latter in the mean streets of Brooklyn and the former in the bathtub of a municipal employee. For Joe, in the Old World and the New, the Golem is as much Houdini as Superman, an escape artist of the first order, perfect for a persecuted Jewish people who need flight as much as fight.

For Chabon, who revels in the magic of language, the Golem is creation itself. "Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation," he writes. "Every Golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina's delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and cabalistic chitchat; was, literally, talked into life."

Words are certainly the creative mud that runs through the veins of Chabon. A wonderfully lyrical writer, Chabon rattles off one elegiac list after another, paeans to the comic books that sustained Joe during his lean years after the war. "Joe loved his comic books: for their inferior color separation, their poorly trimmed paper stock, their ads for air rifles and dance courses and acne creams, for the basement smell that clung to the older ones. . . . Most of all, he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could . . . transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art."

And yet, for all the words in Chabon's 600-plus pages, there is remarkably little blood. Change the names Kavalier & Clay to Hardy & Hardy and there would be little difference in the level of derring-do. The shaping of a Golem may be, as it is to Joe at the end, "a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation . . . the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something--one poor, dumb, powerful thing--exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation." But shaping without fire, yearning without passion, leave the adventures of Kavalier & Clay three colors short of amazement.

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