*** Major Spoiler Alert ***
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is fiction disguised as biography… written with the same detailed simplicity as, say, the works of Laura Hillenbrand. But behind the footnotes, quotes, and highly detailed historical references, there’s a story that’s so improbable that it actually seems that only real life could have delivered it.
The novel focuses more on Joe Kavalier than on Sammy Clay, but both men turn out to lead exciting though extremely difficult lives. It’s just that Josef Kavalier’s is far more spectacular.
Escaping from Prague just as the Nazis move in, (and the story of that escape is one of the most exciting parts of the whole novel) Josef winds up in Brooklyn, sharing a bed with his cousin Sammy Klayman. Joe is a classically trained graphic artist and a student of magic and the escapes of Houdini. Sammy works for a company that sells novelties: whoopee cushions and the like. But Sam has a big idea: why not have the company add a line to its small publishing arm that up till that point only dealt with dime novels and catalogues. Why not start publishing the hot new thing: superhero comic books?
Fueled by fears for Joe’s family and hatred of the Nazis, the pair dreams up a character who draws on all Joe’s past experiences, a superhero called the Escapist dedicated to stomping out fascism. And the cover of the very first issue shows the Escapist punching Adolph Hitler right in the face.
The comic series and others it spawns are all great successes. They bring loads of money to the publishers who had to be talked into the idea in the first place. Joe and Sam have been cheated out of their fare share of the profits but still do pretty well… well enough for Joe to hobnob a little with high society and in the process meet a sweet girl named Rosa who becomes his lover. Joe is saving every penny he makes on his comic book art to buy a house for his parents and younger brother when they finally make it to America, but with Rosa’s encouragement, he also puts up money for a steamship ticket so that his brother can to be brought to the US and saved from the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
It’s about this time that Joe also begins putting on magic shows for bar mitzvahs and the like, and one night, meeting a young boy who is a fan of escapists, he agrees to end his act with one of Houdini’s most famous escapes. As Rosa waits in their new apartment to tell Joe that she’s pregnant with his child and eager to marry him, and Sammy is at a gathering of celebrities who, though it is actually illegal at the time, are all gay, Joe learns that a German U-boat has sunk the steamer on which his brother is coming to the US.
All hands are lost. So is Joe. He fails to complete the dangerous Houdini escape but is rescued by the guests at the last minute. Then, humiliated and heartbroken, rather than returning to Rosa – who already blames herself for convincing Joe to book his brother onto the steamer – he runs off and joins the Navy.
Joe finds himself in Antarctica for the winter, in a desolate outpost whose mission is to monitor the messages of German sea traffic. In a freak accident, the heater in the sleeping compound releases poisonous gasses into the crew’s quarters, and all the men in his unit are killed except Joe, one dog, and a pilot who was out of the sleeping compound at the time. Joe manages to maintain radio contact with home base but there is nothing they can do to save him until the winter subsides. Joe also discovers messages from another Antarctic compound… a German compound occupied by one scientist. Joe and the pilot decide that, they will fight across the snowy landscape, get to the German compound, kill the scientist, and have some small measure of revenge on Germany.
Struggling mightily against the elements they do just that, although when they get to the compound and kill the German they realize that he was the antithesis of the Nazi enemy, a true peace lover and a good person. Now, wracked with guilt, Joe decides that his life is a total waste and he has nothing left to live for. That’s when he gets a radio message from the Navy. They’re coming to rescue him.
Joe is saved, rehabilitated and put on a boat back to the US, but when the boat gets to America, he’s disappeared. And his whereabouts remains unknown for the next 10 years. Meanwhile, Sammy, fearing the vicious anti gay laws and attitudes in the US at the time, marries Rosa to give her the security of a husband and a father for Joe’s son.
It is not an especially happy union. Although, Rosa discovers that she is a fine artist in her own right and, with Sammy’s encouragement, she becomes the most successful woman comic book artist in America. Sammy loves his son and the boy likes and respects him too, but he also understands that Sam is not really his father.
What happens next? Well, given the off-the-wall originality that the author has displayed to this point in the story, and the incredibly complex, insecure yet inventive personality of Josef Kavalier, you should expect some AMAZING events that draw the attention of the entire City of New York, offer a warm, loving reunion of Joe Rosa and their son, and possibilities that bode well not only for Kavalier and Clay but for the whole comic book industry and all the rest of us as well.