Michael Chabon’s sprawling novel about a young Jew who escapes from Europe on the eve of World War II and makes it big in New York’s comic book industry has made him a literary superhero.
Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this week, earning the 37-year-old Jewish author one of the world’s top literary awards.
The 659-page book is full of magic, both literary and literarily.
Joe Kavalier, who apprenticed with a magician, escapes from Czechoslovakia in a coffin after a scene involving the legendary Golem of Prague.
After he arrives in New York, he and his cousin Sammy Clay thrive – for a while, at least – by creating a character, “The Escapist,” a young hero rescued from an orphanage in Central Europe who derives his powers to fight evil from a golden key.
The creative forces behind the comic industry in that era – considered the Golden Age of comic books – were mainly Jewish men: Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel and Captain America and Hulk creator Jack Kirby, for instance.
Chabon himself was a big comics fan as a kid.
“I grew up steeped in comic books,” he once told an interviewer. Like his father before him, Chabon’s father would bring him comic books every Friday after work.
As an adult, Chabon re-opened his old collection.
“When I opened it up and that smell came pouring out, that old smell, I was struck by a rush of memories, a sense of my childhood self that seemed to be continued in there,” he has been quoted as saying.
The page-turning novel, replete with Jewish themes, comes after Chabon has moved closer to Judaism.
After a childhood he describes as a “standard suburban Jewish upbringing” spent partially in the planned community of Columbia, Md., Chabon earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
He made a literary splash in the late 1980s with his highly acclaimed debut, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” His second novel, “Wonder Boys,” about a college professor undergoing a midlife crisis, was made into a movie starring Michael Douglas.
While “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is a much more ambitious and wide-ranging work than his first two novels, it shares the element of men struggling with relationships that also appeared in his earlier books.
After his first marriage, to a non-Jew, dissolved, Chabon married an Israeli, lawyer and writer Ayelet Waldman. The two live in Berkeley, Calif., with their two children.
Chabon has joined a Jewish Renewal synagogue there, and sits on its board.
For someone who has been called an “American Vladimir Nabokov,” Chabon appears to think of himself in a different light.
Chabon – who turned down an offer to appear in People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list – describes himself as “nebbishy.”
Perhaps that’s why, despite the comic feel of the novel and some initial triumphs for its heroes, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay face multiple struggles. First they lose control of their comic creation. Then, after Joe learns that his younger brother died before he could leave Europe, he joins the army – and disappears.
Sammy, meanwhile, faces his own personal demons.
Despite his great success, Chabon appears to be struggling with some demons as well.
He told The Associated Press after he won the award that “For some reason, the idea of failure is never very far from my mind, especially when I turn to thinking about writing and literature.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.