The Man of Ink

Before others could reject him, Michael Chabon had convinced himself no one wanted to read an epic novel about comic-book creators, mythical Jewish monsters called golems, New York in the 1930s, daring escapes from Lithuania, Nazis, and the Empire State Building's elevator system. He wanted to write the book--desperately, one might say, if only because such a tome would allow him the opportunity to tie together his childhood memories and adult obsessions--but thought his agent and his editor would shoot down such a proposal. In the end, they did not, but Chabon's idea seemed such an enormous undertaking--it would be less a novel than a thousand-mile walk through history in bare feet--and enormous undertakings have never been Chabon's strongest suit. He is, after all, the very same man who once wrote a book, titled Wonder Boys, that is more or less about how he failed to write another book, which was to have been titled Fountain City. The former was made into a film, released this year, starring Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a weary English professor haunted by his incomplete brick of a book, all 2,000 pages of it. The latter sits in Chabon's Berkeley, California, home, forever unfinished.

Fountain City was to be about Chabon's greatest passions: baseball, ballparks, architecture, and cooking among them. It was (is?) about an architect who wants to build the perfect ballpark; it becomes his obsession. But Chabon couldn't finish the book, because he found he didn't want to spend any more time with the book's protagonist. Turns out, the creator wanted little to do with his creation, so he ditched the book; Chabon ran into a creative wall, and like a crash-test dummy the author buckled upon impact. Even now, he doesn't quite know how the book slipped away from him, only that his failure to complete it haunts him.

"And it's going to be the question that haunts me forever, I think, because in a way, I sort of felt or persuaded myself that there was something inherently flawed with that book," Chabon says. The tone of his voice suggests there are other things he'd rather talk about; he talks about the book the same way a man might talk about the woman who got away. "It was misconceived from the beginning. No matter what I did, I was better off abandoning it, because it was inherently unfinishable."

There were moments when he felt as though his latest book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, was just as unfinishable. Besides being so much longer than his earlier works, among them The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and two collections of short stories, it also contains dozens of characters; chief among them are a Czech immigrant named Josef Kavalier, who abandoned his homeland and family just ahead of Hitler's encroaching footsteps, and Joe's Brooklyn-born cousin Sammy Clay (née Klayman), an aspiring artist and would-be creator of comic books. The book, which unfolds over several decades, demanded extensive research: Chabon found himself buried in university libraries, pouring over blueprints for the Empire State Building, books about Antarctica, and transcripts of Congressional hearings condemning comics in the mid-1950s. He went to comic-book conventions and interviewed Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and so many other heroes during the late 1930s and early '40s. He talked to Stan Lee, the man who helped birth Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, in addition to so many other angst-ridden, super-powered good guys. Chabon expected it would take him two years to complete Kavalier and Clay; he wrote the book in "four years, four months, and four days," he says with the smallest of chuckles, explaining that "life got in the way."

But he would not discard this book, because he had fallen in love with his characters. Chabon wanted to know what would become of Joe and Sam, and what would become of the superhero they create, The Escapist (such an appropriate hero for European Jews in the 1930s, so many of whom longed for the magical golden key that would liberate them from the coffin). The father wanted to see his children through to the very end; he would not abandon them, not this time. As a result, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ranks among the year's best-reviewed books, and it's worthy of such praise: Every paragraph reads like a tiny poem, and the tale only picks up steam over its 638 pages (it feels half that length, at most). It reads like the world's finest comic book, filled with heroes (writers, artists, filmmakers; even Orson Welles and Salvador Dali show up) and villains (Nazis, publishers), good guys and women (and, in Sam's case, men) who love them. What he ended up with was a tale as thrilling as leaping a tall building in a single bound.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky