I’m not a comics girl. I’ve never gotten the appeal of graphic novels. I don’t watch Jessica Jones or Supergirl, the only Iron Man I’ve seen is the third one and that was only because my kid made me, and I’ve never seen a Batman movie, although I do own Wonder Woman Underoos. Also, apparently there are two different comic universes and you can’t cross characters, which is something I just recently discovered, much to the chagrin of my friends, but I still don’t know which characters belong to which universe. I don’t know. It’s not my thing. I get it, in the way that I get that Nirvana was Important To Music, but it’s just not my style. So when JB handed me Kav and Clay and said excitedly, “But it’s about comic books!”, I sort of inwardly cringed, and not just because it weighs about a million pounds. Or because the cover is, frankly, pretty busy. But he’s got a 500 batting average when it comes to recommending things to me, at it won the Pulitzer, so I figured I should at least give it a shot.
The novel begins in New York in 1939, when Sammy Clay’s mother wakes him in the night to make room for his newly arrived cousin, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Czechoslovakia. Over the course of the next several years, Joe and Sammy form a tight partnership, presenting the world with the comic book hero The Escapist, a blue suited superhero who “roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains!” Seemingly overnight, The Escapist and Joe and Sammy’s stable of heroes become a phenomenon, fighting Hitler and the Nazis in the pages of their comics, inspiring dreams in young boys and giving hope to the men fighting overseas. Along the way, they meet the beautiful Rosa Saks, an accomplished artist in her own right and the inspiration behind the character of Luna Moth, and the three of them form a very unique family. But then Joe learns of his family’s fate in Czechoslovakia, and, grief stricken, he abruptly joins the Navy, leaving without a word, and Sammy and Rosa are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered universe and bury The Escapist.
Chabon is a bit like Richard Russo (Empire Falls) in that he tends to weave in threads of other stories and it takes a while, sometimes a very long while, before the reader discovers their importance or relevance to the main story. And so while Joe and Sammy’s relationship and the comics they produce are the main focus, there were many other stories along the way that intrigued me: the Golem in Czechoslovakia, Joe’s magic lessons and obsession with Harry Houdini, Rosa’s relationship with her father, Joe’s time stationed in the Arctic during the end of the way (and the incredibly heartbreaking scene with the dogs). And there were characters I loved, in particular Tracy Bacon, a Errol Flynn-like actor who played the part of The Escapist in the radio version, and on whom I developed a little book crush. There is also a particularly delightful scene involving Salvador Dali and a old-fashioned diving helmet that I could picture as easily as if it were happening in front of me.
Kav and Clay is an ambitious novel, and it’s one of those books that you have to just sink in to and let yourself get carried along. The stories and the writing were fantastic – one doesn’t win a Pulitzer without some degree of excellence – but it was the characters that really spoke to me. Not since Shantaram have I loved characters as much as I loved Sammy and Joe. Chabon imbued a humanness in to Sammy and Joe and the entire cast that is rare to see, especially in great, epic novels where it’s easy to get swept away in the story, and the characters sometimes suffer because of that. But not in this instance, and that, more than anything, is why I loved this book.
I finished Kav and Clay in tears. Not sad tears, but not exactly happy tears either. JB says the novel was about hope. I say it was about love. And maybe those are the same thing.