A stroke of sheer conceptual genius links the themes of illusion and escape with that of the European immigrant experience of America in this huge, enthralling third novel from the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1994).
Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier arrives in Brooklyn in 1939 to stay with his aunt’s family, and sparks are immediately struck between “Joe” (a talented draftsman) and his cousin Sammy Klayman, a hustling go-getter (and hopeful “serious writer”) who dreams of success in the burgeoning new field of newspaper comic strips. The pair dream up, and draw the exploits of, such superheroes as “the Escapist” (a figure resembling “Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer,” whose sources are revealed in extensive flashbacks that also detail Joe’s training as a magician and escape artist)—and “Kavalier & Clay” become rich and famous. But the shadow of Hitler overpowers Joe’s imagination, sending him on an odyssey of revenge (to Greenland Station as a naval technician, in a furiously imaginative sequence) and into retreat from both his celebrity and the surviving people he still loves. Meanwhile, even as the world of the comics is yielding to the pressures of change and political accusation (in the form of Senator Estes Kefauver’s Congressional Committee investigation), Sammy makes a parallel gesture of renunciation, continuing to live in a fragile fantasy world. The story climaxes unforgettably—and surprisingly—atop the Empire State Building, and its lengthy dénouement (a virtuoso piece of sustained storytelling) ends in a gratifying resolution of the deceptions and disappearances that have become second nature (as well as heavy burdens) to Joe, and a simultaneous “unmasking” and liberation that release Sammy from the storybook world they had made together.
A tale of two magnificently imagined characters, and a plaintive love song to (and vivid re-creation of) the fractious ethnic energy of New York City a half century ago.