THE POSSIBILITY OF escape lies at the core of Michael Chabon's latest novel, an epic that ranges from the tragedy of Jewish life at mid-century to New York's freewheeling comic-book world of that era. This spellbinding literary trip starts with young Czech Jew Joe Kavalier, who escapes from Prague--and leaves his family behind--on the eve of World War II by hiding in a coffin. After Joe arrives in New York, he quickly teams up with his cousin, teenager Sam Clay. Kavalier is an artist with prodigious powers, Clay a wordsmith with a knack for narrative and a surfeit of chutzpah to boot. This pair convinces Clay's boss to go into the comic business, to fantastic results.
The two create "The Escapist," a young hero rescued from an orphanage in Central Europe who derives his powers to fight evil from a golden key. Soon Kavalier and Clay begin to enjoy public lives as colorful as those found in their cartoon's frames: "The Escapist" is a hit and Joe falls in love. But the clouds of World War II, which loom over the novel from its beginning, grow darker, as Joe attempts to rescue his brother from wartime Europe. Next Joe enlists in the army--and vanishes.
Though this plot bears the tension of a comic serial, Chabon creates a world more complex than that found on the funny pages--and one well removed from the present-day settings of Chabon's previous novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys. Chabon evokes both the doomed ambiance of prewar Prague and the excitement of New York City with stylistic aplomb and impressive detail. By immersing himself in the dusty pages of the past--the novel comes with a hefty and far-ranging bibliography--Chabon seems to have freed himself to invent a tale that has the shape of the real and the glint of the fantastic. Not only does Joe Kavalier flee Prague, but he does so with the help of a magician, who puts him in the coffin alongside the body of the Golem, a mythical figure in Jewish history with otherworldly protective powers.
But the will--and the need--to escape extends beyond just the circumstances of the war. Once in New York, Joe becomes a part-time magician. Later, at a party, he helps surrealist artist Salvador Dali slip out of a diving helmet that is depriving him of oxygen. For his part, Sam Clay, like many of his generation and after, denies his homosexuality in another attempt to evade the harshness of the world around him.
For all its wonderful illusions, this novel has a certain incredibility about it. Chabon, a product of postwar U.S. affluence, writes as if time can vanquish painful memories: "The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place." One wonders if Chabon's creation Joe Kavalier, his family swept away in the Holocaust, would truly find the same sense of magic in such a phenomenon.