The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Chabon, Michael

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: May-02-2006
  • Last revised: May-17-2007


In October, 1939, Josef Kavalier arrives at the New York City apartment of his cousin Sammy Klayman after an arduous escape from Prague and the Nazi invasion. Kavalier’s escape involved hiding in the casket of the oversized Golem of Prague, and was possible due to his training with Bernard Kornblum, one of the premier illusionists in Europe. Kavalier, the son of two physicians, and older brother to young Thomas, struggles to secure the freedom of his family, and to adapt to his adopted country.

His cousin, Sammy, however, is a first generation New York City Jew, the son of a psychiatric nurse at Bellevue and a fly-by-night vaudeville actor called the Mighty Molecule. Sammy was afflicted with polio as a child, with resultant spindly but usable legs--this later prevents his entry into the armed services after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sammy, who changes his name to Sam Clay, forms a partnership with his cousin to create a new kind of comic book, The Escapist, with innovations such as the Luna Moth, a female superhero. Much of the book follows their energies in the comic book industry in mid-twentieth century New York.

Rosa Luxemburg Saks, Sammy and Joe form an unusual love triangle. Rosa is an artist who introduces the cousins to the art culture of NYC, including a visit from Salvador Dalí, whom Joe rescues from asphyxiation in a diving suit during a Greenwich Village party. Joe and Rosa’s relationship, however, is interrupted by World War II, when Joe, devastated by news of his family in Europe, enlists, only to survive again--this time from carbon monoxide poisoning in an Antarctic Kelvinator Naval station.

Meanwhile Sam and Rosa marry to raise her son. Sam, a homosexual at a time when such a designation was largely viewed as a disease and as Un-American, spends much of his life in denial of his yearnings. Nonetheless he is eventually forced to testify to a Senate Judiciary Committee in 1954 on the role of the comic book industry in the trumpeting of male-male relationships.


This rich, Pulitzer-prize winning novel covers a broad expanse of the human condition: the role of exile and Otherness, creativity and invention, hatreds and fears, love and acceptance. Highlights of the book range from the sweep of social history to tender, intimate moments, such as the love scene between Sam and an actor in the Perisphere of the closed World’s Fair.

Chabon’s vocabulary is also delightfully expansive, and includes medical terms-- exophthalamic, nystagmus, and prognathous. Though far from a typical "medical humanities" text, this novel does explore issues, hopefully noted in the summary above, germane to the interdisciplinary field of literature and medicine.


See Chabon’s phrenologic website for background information on golems, the golden age of comic books and other writings.


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count