Pulitzer Prizes are kind of my new obsession. And while winning the Pulitzer is far from the best thing about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it is most assuredly justified praise.
The basic plot concerns two young cousins in New York City in the pre-World War II era. Josef Kavalier comes over from Prague, escaping the Nazi fate that awaits not only his family, not only his country, but most of Europe. It's a common enough story in literature, but Chabon does an impressive job of letting us feel young Kavalier's isolation, hope, regret, loathing, and hope once again, that he'll be able to get the rest of his family over to the USA. Sam Klayman is his cousin, living in NYC, who displays all the traits that we've come to expect from a plucky young man in this era, but who somehow never comes off as staid or generic. It's a testament to Chabon's writing that his characters can feel familiar and fresh at the same time; we've seen this story, at least at its most basic level, many times. However, there are things that set the story apart: Chabon's voice, the authenticity of emotion we feel emanating from the characters, the original plot that gets us to the main point - the boys create a comic book. More than that, they create a rich, original, wonderful world that's inhabited by the characters that express their deepest desires in ways they'll never be able to. Even after being called out on it (one of their friends tells Sammy, "Of course you made the Escapist big and strong. You've got bad legs, your superhero has to be able to dance perfectly.") the characters still don't seem too aware of the sheer levels of their projection. We as readers can see it (how bad do I want to see this cover that Joe Kavalier drew for the first issue, knocking Hitler out?) but the characters are average - they continue about their lives without the kind of self-aware meta-analysis that is common in most fictional narrators trains of thought today.
The comic book character, of course, is a success, but, as was standard at this time (and perhaps still now?), the boys are only the workhorses; the editors and the publishing house get rich, the boys get a pittance. The Escapist represents a lot of different things, obviously including Joe's escape from Prague, but I won't go into as many details as some of the other reviews that I've read (since finishing the book - I'm really glad I didn't read them before; it would have ruined one of the more genuine shocks I got from the turning plot!) except to say that it's certainly a theme. But, to his credit, Chabon never beats you over the head with the theme...he simply lays it out and allows you to observe.
Of course, the plot centers around World War II in a most logical way. Taking into consideration the fact that our two central characters are Jews and that one of them literally pours all of his being into saving his family from the inevitability of Hitler's domination, we have to get to it. The amount of time covered in the novel is deceiving - anytime I thought a lot of time had to have passed, it turned out to only be a small amount. This is not a complaint - it's amazing to see what Chabon is capable of doing while maintaining a tight timeframe. Too many authors space things out liberally while playing ambiguously with the passing of time, trying to surround their narratives with this universal sense of 'now.' But it's not always now, and this book and its plot are firmly centered around some very important dates.
Finally, the highest praise that I can offer this book (and I hope it comes off as truly sincere praise, not a cop out, since I really am a fan of the comic book genre) is that as I was reading the end of the novel, all I could think was, "Man, I wish these comics were real so that I could go out and read them next!" And yes, I know that recently, they've made some Escapist comics, that I'll now be picking up but, of course, I'm talking specifically about the Golem work and the various Luna Moth artistry that's so highly-hyped in the middle pages of the novel. The novel made me wish that it was a true story; how much higher praise can there really be?