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The Novelist as Wonder Boy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Michael Chabon was a child, his pediatrician father would lug stacks of comic books back to their Columbia, Md., home, where the young devotee devoured each issue, especially the work of “Fantastic Four” creator Jack Kirby, amassing thousands of skinny volumes. Three decades later Chabon, 37, a celebrated prose stylist whose first two novels were bestsellers, has written an effusive, magisterial paean to the genre and its creators; the 600-page story plumbs the admittedly shallow depths of the Golden Age of Comics while at the same time sounding the unfathomable abyss of the Holocaust and its meaning for a young refugee in New York who finds fleeting fortune drawing characters that right the world’s wrongs while dressed in long underwear.

Here is how Chabon describes what comic books mean to Joe Kavalier in his new novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (Random House):

“Joe sighed. Although all the world--even Sam Clay, who had spent most of his adult life making and selling them--viewed them as trash, Joe loved his comic books: for their inferior color separation, their poorly trimmed paper stock, their ads for air rifles and dance courses and acne creams, for the basement smell that clung to the older ones, the ones that had been in storage during Joe’s travels. Most of all, he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of 500 aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for 15 years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.”

So when a visitor to his writing cottage behind his large shingle home with a redwood tree in the front yard innocently suggests that Chabon might be a comic book fan, the author seems somewhat taken aback and quickly points out that he sold off most of his treasures in high school. “I don’t read comics,” he says at first. Sometime in high school, his love of the genre gave way to enthusiasm for literary writers like Henry Miller and John Cheever.

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He does, however, frame original drawings by Kirby by his desk and, when prompted, draws open a file cabinet in which a couple of hundred comics are lovingly preserved, the amber of his youth. “I had several thousand comics,” he says, warming to the topic. “I wish I still had them. My son also wishes I still had them, but I don’t have a collector’s mentality.”

Chabon certainly seems to have a creator’s mentality, and the act of breathing life into dust (or trash) is central to his new book, which has been drawing mostly excellent reviews.

The story starts when Sam Clay is roused from sleep one night in New York in 1939 to meet his cousin Joe Kavalier, who has escaped (with the aid of the mythic Golem of Prague) from the encroaching terrors of a Nazified Czechoslovakia. The next day, the two begin collaborating on a comic book character called the Escapist, who can pick any lock, slip any shackle. The Escapist battles barely disguised Nazis, while Kavalier pines to rescue the rest of his family and Clay discovers (and decides to hide) the fact that he is gay. When the U.S. enters the war, Kavalier runs off to fight real Nazis and finds himself stuck in Antarctica.

The book concludes with Kavalier standing on the precipice of the Empire State Building in the Escapist’s long underwear, trying to right the wrongs of his own life. Each time and place is lovingly and precisely evoked in Chabon’s looping and trilling sentences (although some plot points and actions are glossed over). “A novel of towering achievement,” concluded the New York Times.

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“Fighting Hitler was what comics were all about,” Chabon says. “I just wanted the opportunity to travel in time and go back to this place and live there if only in my head.” At 37, he still resembles a grad student, with wavy brown hair that falls to his shoulders, bright eyes and fine features that make him look like a Hollywood version of what a writer should look like. He wears glasses, shorts and a Giants T-shirt, and slips on clogs to walk from his house through his backyard to his writing cottage, where he reverts to bare feet.

He’s accommodating but seems to tolerate interviews more than open up to them. Not long after sitting down to talk about his work, he says he has to pick up one of his children from school. His wife insists that she can manage.

Learning by Imitation

Chabon, with his usual precision, says he wanted to be a writer since he was 11. As a child he drew his own comic books. Later he typed up a 12-page story about Captain Nemo and Sherlock Holmes told in the voice of Doctor Watson. “Slavishly imitate the writers you love,” he suggests. “You’ll learn a lot about how to write.”

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, he enrolled in the MFA writing program at UC Irvine. His roommate was novelist Louis B. Jones, whose work habits made a strong impression on Chabon, who now writes Sunday to Thursday, 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. “I don’t believe in waiting for ideas to come up,” he says. “What’s important is sitting down in the chair at the same time every day and staying there.”

In his second year, Chabon had to write a thesis. He had just re-read “The Great Gatsby” and “Goodbye, Columbus,” and decided to set a story over the course of a single summer in Pittsburgh: Art Bechstein is the son of a gangster, and after he finishes college, he falls in love with a woman and then a man and has a falling out with his father.

When he finished, Chabon dropped the manuscript off with his faculty advisor, MacDonald Harris. That was on a Friday. On Monday, Chabon found a note in his own mailbox: Harris had read the manuscript and shipped it off to his own agent in New York. Thus Chabon soon had his first book contract even before he bothered to type up the thesis on the requisite bond paper and submit it for his degree. “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” was published in 1988, and reviews were soon lauding Chabon as a hot new talent.

It took Chabon seven years to publish a second novel. Although he quickly went to work on another book, he struggled with a manuscript called “Fountain City” for 62 months, by his reckoning, before tossing it aside. He later admitted to being bewildered and depressed, spooked by the “bathyspheric pressures that weigh on a second novel.”

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One day during this period, his wife, Ayelet Waldman, a Harvard Law graduate whom he met on a blind date, told him that she was going to spend the next six weeks cramming for the California bar exam. He went down to his writing room and imagined a scene of an older man watching a younger man put a gun to his head. By the time she had taken the exam, Chabon was 117 pages into a novel he would call “The Wonder Boys” (1995), the story of a pot-smoking novelist trapped in an endless draft of a book. The recent movie version with Michael Douglas garnered good reviews and sank, but the studio is re-releasing the film for Academy Award consideration. He has also put out two short-story collections, but critics chided him for not writing a novel equal to his large talent.

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is Chabon’s rejoinder. He found himself inspired by the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman and sold the idea for $100. “I started with a vague idea about comic books,” he says, “and then I came up with the characters, and as I wrote about them and bounced them off one another, the story emerged, and finally the theme developed.”

He spent months reading up on the comic craft, wandering the streets of New York, visiting Prague, interviewing giants of the genre such as Will Eisner, Stan Lee and Gil Kane and immersing himself in the minutiae of mid-century America (no pair of pajamas goes un-detailed). “That’s a time period that’s always had a grip on me,” he says. “The literature, pop music, film. Part of the appeal was to listen to Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman records and call it research. I wanted to know the cultural weather, and it was an excuse to have fun.”

Or, mostly, fun. “On any given day writing is pleasurable,” he says, “but over four years, four months and four days, it’s hard going, a long haul. It’s like fighting a war when everyone is thinking the war will be over by Christmas, and five years later they’re still in the trenches!”

These days he is working on a new novel, which he won’t talk about, and finishing a pilot for TNT called “Telegraph Avenue” about two families, one black, one white, who live in Berkeley. Chabon and Waldman moved here four years ago after living three years in L.A., where she was a federal public defender. They have two children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3. In June, Waldman published “Nursery Crimes,” a mystery about a woman who gives up a career as a public defender to stay home with her daughter and winds up solving crimes during nap times. “We talk all the time and bounce ideas off one another,” he says. “We’re each other’s first readers.”

He’s written a couple of screenplays, a TV script and a treatment (rejected) for the “X-Men” movie that came out earlier in the year. None of his efforts has been produced yet, though most are posted on his Web site (https://home.earthlink.net/~mchabon/).

“The Web site is very fun, but it’s time-consuming,” he says. “If I didn’t put this stuff on my site, it would probably disappear. It’s stuff that was important to me and that I put some feeling into, and it’s nice that it can go on living.”

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Michael Chabon will be reading from his new book at Dutton’s, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., in Brentwood, on Tuesday at 7 pm.


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