110 pages 3 hours read

Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

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Summary and Study Guide


American writer Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, for his 2000 historical fiction novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The story unfolds in the period leading up to World War II and continues through the war years and beyond. The main characters are two Jewish cousins living in New York City, seeking success in the emerging comic book industry. One is the artist Josef Kavalier who is a Czech refugee, and the other Sam Clay, a writer born in Brooklyn.

Plot Summary

Sam Klayman, known as Sam “Clay,” meets his cousin Josef “Joe” Kavalier in 1939. Joe has recently arrived in New York from Prague. A year earlier, the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia and Joe's parents arranged for him to go to America. However, a recent change in Nazi policy keeps Joe from leaving on a visa. Joe’s former teacher in the art of escape, Bernard Kornblum, has a plan. Kornblum has been tasked with locating the legendary Golem of Prague and getting it out of the country before the Nazis can steal it. Joe and the Golem make it to Lithuania in a coffin. From there, Joe travels to Japan, San Francisco, and New York.

Joe needs to find work quickly so he can help get his family out of Prague. Sam, who has long been interested in making comic books, discovers Joe's artistic talents and sees a chance to achieve his dream. Sam pitches his idea for a comic book to his boss, Sheldon Anapol, the owner of Empire Novelty Inc. Anapol decides to give Joe and Sam a chance. They come up with the Escapist, a character who is in possession of a Golden Key that gives him super strength and the ability to escape from any type of bonds. Anapol accepts the idea and Sam and Joe begin making comics.

The Escapist is a hit. Joe travels regularly to the German consulate to discuss exit visas for his family. One day at the consulate, Joe learns of his father's death. Joe always used The Escapist as a means to carry on a war against the Nazis, pitting the Escapist against Hitler himself. After his father's death, Joe begins picking fights with Germans in the city.

There is talk about producing a radio program about the Escapist. George Deasey, the editor, advises Sam and Joe as they unsuccessful negotiate for a part of the earnings. Deasey takes them to a party where Joe meets Rosa Saks, with whom he will later fall in love. Sam finds two men kissing at the party, an experience that starts him questioning his sexuality. 

Joe and Rosa begin dating. Rosa helps Joe secure a spot for his younger brother on a ship that is taking Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Sam becomes close with the voice actor playing the Escapist, Tracy Bacon. Bacon and Sam begin a romantic relationship, though Sam is confused about what he wants and whether he is even homosexual.

Joe learns that Thomas’s ship has been sunk by a German torpedo; at the same time, Sam is on a getaway with a group of other gay men that is raided by police officers, and two FBI agents rape Sam and another man. When Sam returns to New York, he discovers Joe has run away to join the navy. Unbeknownst to Joe, Rosa is pregnant. Sam lets Tracy go to Los Angeles without him. Rosa considers an abortion now that Joe is gone.

Joe is stationed in Antarctica, far away from any combat. One night, everyone except Joe and the pilot, Shannenhouse, die of carbon monoxide poisoning. In his isolation, Joe finally reads the mail that Rosa has sent him and infers that he has a son. Eventually, Joe discovers that the Germans have a station on Antarctica where a single German geologist is conducting research. Joe and Shannenhouse set off to the station. Shannenhouse dies on the way and Joe crash lands. He kills the geologist. Joe is eventually rescued and sent to Guantanamo Bay for psychiatric evaluation.

Sam and Rosa are now married and living an unhappy suburban life. Sam has been raising Joe's and Rosa's son, Tommy, a precocious boy who is interested in magic and comics. On his birthday, Tommy is with Sam—whom he calls Dad, even though he has begun suspecting that Sam adopted him—at a magic store. Tommy notices a back room with real magicians and recognizes one as someone his parents call Cousin Joe.

Joe subtly makes contact with Tommy. Joe has been hiding out in the Empire State Building, and Tommy convinces him to come out of hiding. Around the time of Joe's return to Sam and Rosa, Sam is outed on live television. Sam, who has felt a sense of relief since being outed, finally decides to come to terms with his sexuality.

Sam comes home to Joe and Rosa, who are still deeply in love. Tommy now knows that Joe is his father. Sam tells them he is going to Los Angeles. Joe wants him to stay and work on comics. Rosa is reluctant for Sam to leave, too. In the morning, Sam is gone.