Kavalier & Clay

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If I’d realized who wrote it, I’d never have read it. The only other book I’d read by Michael Chabon was “Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” Although it was beloved by critics and the in-book of 1989, I hated it; a slacker novel packed with self-aware nihilism, endless ennui and half-hearted sex. Thanks, but no thanks.

But when my friend Iso pushed a copy of Chabon’s new book in my hands, I didn’t recognize the author’s name. For that, I’m grateful to a sieve-like memory, because this one, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” is a winner!

Well, it is a winner. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But never mind that, I liked it! And, I promise, it’s the antithesis of a slacker novel. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is about two ambitious, industrious cousins, Jewish boys, one from Brooklyn, the other a refugee from Czechoslovakia. What they want to do is make comic books. And they succeed. The Brooklyn cousin supplies the words; the Czech does the drawing. Together they create the greatest comic books in the history of the genre.

The book is so convincing that you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s a novel, that the cousins are fictitious characters, that the comics they created never really existed. Part of the convincing lies in the sheer skill of Chabon’s writing. Another part comes from how well, how boldly, he blends fiction and faction. Salvador Dali makes a brief appearance. So do Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Elinore Roosevelt. Even J. Edgar Hoover has a walk-on role.

On the other hand, Gerhardt Frege is in the book, along with Winsor McKay and Dr. Fredric Wertham. I know that McKay created the Little Nemo comic strip, which was real, but as for the other two, I have no idea. I am pretty sure that the NYU School of Applied Meteorology does not exist except in the author’s febrile imagination. If that amount of deliberate confusion weren’t enough, the novel is replete with footnotes – some real, some entirely made up. Pretty soon you can’t tell which is which.

So the best strategy for reading “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is to just go with it. Pretend it’s all real. Pretty soon you’ll stop trying to figure out which are the made-up parts. Oh, but better have a dictionary handy. Unless you know the meanings of vulpine, taboret, grimoire and Marfan’s syndrome. The latter is a hereditary elongation of the bones.

Here’s a quote that will give you a small taste of this big book:
“He would remember for the rest of his life a peaceful half hour spent reading a copy of Betty and Veronica that he had found in a service-station rest room: Lying down with it under a fir tree, in a sun-slanting forest outside of Medford, Oregon, wholly absorbed into that primary-colored world of bad gags, heavy ink lines, Shakespearean farce, and the deep, almost Oriental mystery of the two big-toothed, wasp-waisted goddess-girls, light and dark, entangled forever in the enmity of their friendship.”

This is Jules Older in Albany, Vermont, the Soul of the Kingdom.

Jules Older is the author of more than 20 books for children and adults, and is a passionate outdoors enthusiast.

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