Dog Bite Degustation: Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"

on Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Somewhere at the back of my closet lies a box full of old comics. G.I. Joe. Mad Magazine. Special Forces. Hardly a goldmine, but a yellowing stack of nostalgia nonetheless. My brother has a similar pile stashed away somewhere, though thanks to his keen sense of investment potential, it is both more extensive and, with the passing of the years, more expensive than mine. It's funny that we never threw them away. When we were kids we would go to America each summer to visit dad's family. The comic shops of LA were always a holiday highlight. I would make a mad dash for whatever crazy, gun-toting action dude was flavour of the month while Justin, far more discerning than I, would carefully sort through the racks, picking the ones that he knew would grow exponentially in value. Suffice to say the thrill for me was immediate and fleeting, so much so that I only have one clear memory of our comic book expeditions. Once we got stuck in a store for over an hour because the fattest guy I've ever seen got wedged in the doorway and had to be pried out by the fire department.

I was fortunate to be a kid on the tail end of the golden age of the comic book. It is a form that, in its simple manifestation, is dead, replaced by much more sophisticated, dark graphic novels and serials. Had I not still harboured a secret crush on those crappily-drawn mags at the back of my closet I probably would have passed over Michael Chabon's spectacular celebration of the men (and, to a lesser extent, women) whose artistic flair and vivd imaginations brought visual storytelling to a whole new level. You see, at the time it was published I was on strike against American literature. I didn't think there were any fresh voices worth listening to. A friend of mine handed me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and demanded that I read it. The book, he said, was about comics. And Nazi busting. And the Golem. Pretty much three of my great childhood loves. It was also nearly seven hundred pages long. Ouch. But he had never given me a bum steer when it came to books so I decided to don my old mask, cape and tights and take the plunge.

I would have never thought a book about the nerdiest literary indulgence would capture my heart in the way Kavaier & Clay did. The story of the two cousins, one typically American and the other very much a stranger in a strange land is beautifully sentimental without being trite, is exciting without descending into pulp and is courageous without ever preaching. I love Chabon's idea that tragedy and longing might inspire one of the great characters of that first amazing wave of comic book heroes. The dark undercurrent of Joe Kavalier hoping to rescue his family from the concentration camps, and the subsequent exploration of survivors guilt serve as a perfect foil for the bombastic adventure of his and Sam Clay's meteoric rise to stardom. Ditto, Clay's struggle with his sexuality at a time when being gay could spell the end of one's career. Clearly this book is about a lot more than cartoons, though the author's encyclopaedic knowledge of post-War popular culture shines through on many a page, sometimes a bit too brightly.

Michael Chabon almost single-handedly carries the torch passed on by the likes of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and even Isaac Bashevis Singer. His writing is unmistakably Jewish, with its juxtaposition of wise-ass humour and almost unbearable heartbreak but he is much more than a nasally voice from the Upper West Side. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay captures all that is great about the American cultural spirit - its pioneering drive, its sense of adventure and its multi-cultural effervescence. I demolished the six-hundred and fifty pages in two sittings. If I didn't need to go to work it would have been one.

I have had to stuff the mask, cape and tights back in my closet, atop that box of comic books, but I can't help but feel chuffed that I finished the Dog Bite Degustation challenge with a reading effort worthy of, well, The Escapist.


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