May 24, 1963– Michael Chabon:
”Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”
He is my favorite living writer; although I probably would have to give that statement some thoughtful consideration, but Michael Chabon is the author of my favorite novel of all time, that is for certain.
The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay (2000) offers pretty much everything you could ever want in a book: romance, sex, friendship, death, terrifying escapes, comedy, comic books, Jewish mythology, The Empire State Building, Harry Houdini, Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí and so much more. It’s a truly great entertaining read.
Don’t just take my word for it, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and was a NY Times Bestseller. It was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
There are so many great elements that make this novel resonant for LGBTQ people, but none more so than the indelible gay character, Samuel Klayman, aka Sammy Clay of The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. One-half of the title characters, Sammy Clay is portrayed as a young guy with sheer spunk and the unwavering determination to be a success. Pairing up with his artist cousin, Joe Kavalier, who just barely escaped the Nazis in Prague before making his way to NYC, Sammy uses his love of the new medium of comic books to invent and launch ”The Escapist”, an adventure comic, in Depression-Era America. The comic book becomes an enormous success and even helps the morale of the troops during WW II.
What really makes the character of Sammy meaningful isn’t his achievements or his pluck; it’s because, throughout the book, he struggles with his gayness. American society wasn’t friendly towards queer people in this era and the pressure takes an obvious toll on poor Sammy throughout the novel as he attempts to reconcile his feelings with the image that everyone wants him to be.
Sammy is in the closet for much of the novel. But that closet door swings open for Sammy when he meets handsome radio actor Tracy Bacon. Playing ”The Escapist”, Sammy and Joe’s comic book creation on the radio, Bacon becomes friends with Sammy in an attempt to understand the role he’s playing, but their friendship turns to romance and their love becomes the theme for the last half of the story.
The moment that everything changes for Sammy is when Tracy Bacon kisses him for the first time. A kiss that is literally electric; they lock lips during a lightning storm while they are in an office in The Empire State Building that plunges the two men into the dark. It is the sexiest love scene I have ever encountered.
Earlier in the novel, Sammy sees men kissing and touching at a party at a Greenwich Village apartment and experiences feelings he can’t explain:
”He knew about homosexuality, of course, as an idea, without ever having really connected it to human emotion; certainly, never to any emotion of his own.”
When Sammy starts to fall in love, he begins to get the idea of just how great it feels to be honest with himself. However, being gay is only one of the things that Sammy struggles with throughout the rest of the story, as family responsibility, society, and morality all compete for his full attention, which at times, becomes too much for him to handle.
Sammy jumps right into this new gay life after the kiss. But, just before the two are to move to Los Angeles to start a new life together, he and Bacon are partying in a mansion with a group of rich, closeted NYC gays, when a vindictive and prejudiced maid alerts the police. The cops raid the premises, and beat and arrest the guests. Sammy escapes arrest, but is sexually abused by one of the cops in an incident that leaves bigger scars on Sammy. He is haunted by guilt and humiliation throughout the rest of the novel.
Chabon’s first novel The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh (1988) is also one of the great gay-themed modern novels. It’s openness about gayness was rather groundbreaking early in the plague years.
In The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, Art Bechstein is the son of a mobster launderer, who wants him to succeed in a legitimate career. When Art graduates from the University of Pittsburgh, he has only a vague hope for a summer of adventure before he commits to the rest of his life. Bechstein almost immediately meets a charming young gay gentleman, Arthur, and his friend, a highly literate biker, Cleveland, who become his partners in many summer adventures. As Art’s attraction to Arthur grows, it shakes their friendship and reveals that Art is bisexual. Art is also troubled when Cleveland begins moving deeper into the city’s organized crime families, drawing him closer to his father’s dangerous mob connections. Art’s relationships with his family, friends, and lovers become more and more entangled, with unforeseen consequences.
Chabon, who is straight-but-not-narrow, has LGBTQ characters and themes in most of his other works, including the wonderful Wonder Boys (1995). Wonder Boys has university professor and famed novelist Grady Tripp working on an unwieldy 2,611 page manuscript that is meant to be the follow-up to an award-winning novel, which was published seven years earlier. Tripp’s wife walks out on him when she learns that his mistress, the chancellor of the college, is pregnant with his child. Tripp finds himself involved in a bizarre crime committed by one of his students, an alienated young gay guy, James Leer. Tripp’s editor, Terry Crabtree flies into town to see if Tripp has written anything worth publishing, as both men’s careers depend on Tripp’s in-the-works new book. Crabtree arrives with a trans woman he met on the flight, Antonia. The pair end up having sex in a bedroom at a party at the chancellor’s house, but, immediately afterwards, Crabtree meets Leer and becomes infatuated with him, and Antonia is unceremoniously dumped. Crabtree and Leer flirt throughout the night, which eventually leads up to the two spending the night together in one of Grady’s spare rooms. Dead dogs, tubas, mistaken identities, gay sex; and it’s very funny.
I love all Chabon’s novels, yet The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay is a more sweeping storytelling than Chabon’s previous books. It’s a quintessential American novel with a lot of themes, including a look at a young gay man trying to find his place in an unwelcoming society. I think that Sammy Clay is one of the very best LGBTQ characters in literature.
After the publication of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon was mistakenly featured in a Newsweek Magazine article on new gay writers. Chabon was happy about the magazine’s error, saying:
“I feel very lucky about all of that. It really opened up a new readership to me, and a very loyal one.”
“If Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about anything in terms of human sexuality and identity, it’s that people can’t be put into categories all that easily.”
“I had slept with one man whom I loved and learned to love another man so much that it would never have occurred to me to want to sleep with him.”
Chabon married the writer Ayelet Waldman in 1993. They currently live together in Berkeley with their four children. In 2007, Entertainment Weekly called the couple:
“…a famous, and famously in love, writing pair, like Nick and Nora Charles with word processors and not so much booze.”
Wonder Boys was made into an excellent film in 2000 directed by Curtis Hanson, and starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand and Robert Downey Jr. I give it a big A. A film adaptation of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh starring Sienna Miller, Peter Sarsgaard, and Nick Nolte was released in 2009.
Gay producer Scott Rudin worked on The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay‘s film adaptation for more than a decade. The project seems to continue to be in some sort of pre-production. It would make a first-rate limited series on HBO starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. They already know how to kiss.
Chabon was a big supporter of Barack Obama during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Chabon even includes Obama as a character in his novel Telegraph Avenue (2012).
Chabon is an outspoken critic of the current president, one of over 400 writers who signed a petition a petition calling for his resignation:
“Every morning I wake up and in the seconds before I turn my phone on to see what the latest news is, I have this boundless sense of optimism and hope that this is the day that he is going to have a massive stroke, and, you know, be carted out of the White House on a gurney.”