Pure Escapism

Pure Escapism

This issue Jefferson Chase looks at Michael Chabon's comic inspired novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Whisky & Culture | 09 Sep 2005 | Issue 50 | By Jefferson Chase

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Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a couple of Jewish guys. That’s one way to describe Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, from 2000. Another would be to say it’s a 600-page yarn about the golden age of the comic-book superhero – with the action, imagination and absurd charm of yesteryear’s dime-store novellas.The story begins in 1939 when Josef Kavalier, an art student and amateur magician from Prague, flees the Nazi persecution of Czech Jews and arrives at the apartment of his young cousin, Sammy Clayman, in New York City.Together they concoct a costumed superhero called The Escapist and convince a fly-by-night purveyor of junk, the Empire Novelty Company, to bankroll a new comic.The Escapist is a hit, and the boys are soon rolling in dough. The question is: Will living vicariously through the heroic exploits of a guy in tights make them happy?Joe is racked with guilt about his family back in Prague. He hops on a train bound for Canada with the vaguest of ideas of enlisting with the British Army, only to turn round in a fit of indecision: The air burned his nostrils, and his eyes felt raw. He wandered up Fifth Avenue and then went into a Longchamps and ordered himself a whisky and soda. Then he went once again to the phone.It took Sammy half an hour to get there; by that time Joe was drunk enough, if not quite filthy stinking. Sammy walked into Longchamps’boisterous bar, pulled Joe off his stool, and caught him in his arms. Joe tried but this time could not stop himself. His weeping sounded to his own ears like sad, hoarse laughter.Longchamps was popular chain of restaurants in 1940s Manhattan – one example of the well researched historical details that give Chabon’s Adventures period color.But Joe cannot escape the undertow of the horror happening in Europe. His attempts to extend his fight against evil beyond pen and ink take him as far away as Antarctica – where the whisky, regardless of how one prefers it, comes on ice.Sammy has a different problem. The abandoned son of a pint-sized Jewish vaudeville strongman, he falls in love with the actor who plays The Escapist in the radio version of his comic. Sammy manages to keep himself in the closet until he’s summoned before a McCarthyite Congressional committee that wants to know why all his muscular heroes have lithe young male sidekicks.This time it’s not Joe who’s drowning his sorrows: Sammy nursed his drink for the next hour, chain in his palms, elbows on the bar, the dark brown, sardonic taste of the bourbon… now seemed no different to him from that of the tongue in his mouth, the thoughts in his head, the heart beating imperturbably in his chest… “Hey, Weepin’Wanda,” said the bartender, in a tone of not quite mock menace. “We don’t allow crying in this bar.” Sammy is rescued by George Deasey, the cynical editor-inchief at Empire novelty, who has followed Sammy’s disastrous testimony and his altercation with the barman. He poses a leading question: “Do you know why Batman and Robin have to f*** each other?” Deasey took out his wallet and pulled out a ten-dollar bill, nonchalant, building up to the punch.The bartender shook his head, half-smiling, waiting for something good. “Now, why is that?” “Because they can’t go f*** themselves.” Deasey tossed the bill onto the bar. “The way you can. Now why don’t you make yourself useful and bring me a rye and water, and another of what he’s having?” The glories of Gotham and the wit of Jewish Americans are hardly original subjects, but Chabon gives them a likeable twist. It’s clear the author himself loves comic books – their pace, romanticism and unabashed sentimentality. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay reminds us that we all have things we long to escape, and that the first step in doing so is not being embarrassed to dream.
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