THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY

By Michael Chabon

Random House. 639 pp. $26.95

Just how amazing, you ask? Well, consider: A teenager named Joseph Kavalier escapes from Nazi-occupied Prague by hiding in a sealed coffin that also contains the legendary Jewish monster, the Golem. Yet another young man, gimpy-legged Tom Mayflower, discovers that he has been chosen by the mystic League of the Golden Key to become the scourge of injustice and savior of the oppressed, none other than the blue-suited superhero the Escapist. About the same time, a bespectacled librarian, Miss Judy Dark, "Under-Assistant Cataloguer of Decommissioned Volumes," finds herself unexpectedly metamorphosed (electric wire, ancient artifact) into, yes, that darkly radiant Mistress of the Night, the revealingly attired (i.e., unattired) crime-fighter Luna Moth. And not least, by any means, there's scrappy, fast-talking Sammy Clayman, all-American adolescent visionary, vintage 1939:

"Sammy dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape. He dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person, like Clifton Fadiman, or perhaps into a heroic doctor; or developing, through practice and sheer force of will, the mental powers that would give him a preternatural control over the hearts and minds of men. In his desk drawer lay--and had lain, for some time--the first eleven pages of a massive autobiographical novel to be entitled either (in the Perelmanian mode) Through Abe Glass Darkly or (in the Dreiserian) American Disillusionment (a subject of which he was still by and large ignorant). He had devoted an embarrassing number of hours of mute concentration--brow furrowed, breath held--to the development of his brain's latent powers of telepathy and mind control. And he had thrilled to that Iliad of medical heroics, The Microbe Hunters, ten times at least. But like most natives of Brooklyn, Sammy considered himself a realist, and in general his escape plans centered around the attainment of fabulous sums of money.

"From the age of six, he had sold seeds, candy bars, houseplants, cleaning fluids, metal polish, magazine subscriptions, unbreakable combs, and shoelaces door-to-door. In a Zharkov's laboratory on the kitchen table, he had invented almost functional button-reattachers, tandem bottle openers, and heatless clothes irons. In more recent years, Sammy's commercial attention had been arrested by the field of professional illustration. . ."

Zharkov, those of a certain age will remember, was the scientist sidekick in the comic strips about Flash Gordon. What! You don't remember? Not to worry: In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon (wunderkind author of Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) re-creates--in stippled detail, with warmth and pizzazz and prose like silk--the very texture of life from 1939 to 1955, the heyday of whoopee cushions, big-band music, Hitler, radio drama, Greenwich village bohemians, carnival strong men, Joe DiMaggio, pinup girls, Jewish emigres, Old Gold cigarettes, B-B guns and, not least, by any means, comic books. Surely, during those exuberant, heartbreaking years just living in America must have seemed the most amazing adventure of all.

Especially for a couple of boy geniuses. Having smuggled himself across half the world to New York, former art student Joe Kavalier teams up with his hot-shot cousin Sam Clay (no longer Klayman) in a scheme to create a comic-book rival to Superman. The Escapist doesn't just fight crime, he "frees the world of it. He frees people, see? He comes in the darkest hour. He watches from the shadows. Guided only by the light from--the light from--his Golden Key!" Chabon is clearly so informed a student of the caped-crusader genre ("I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I've ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics"), and he describes Luna Moth and the Swift and a half dozen other superheroes so convincingly that not a few readers will soon be on the lookout, in attics and thrift shops, for Amazing Midget Radio Comics No. 1. That's the issue with cover art showing the Escapist as he delivers a tremendous haymaker to Hitler smack on the nose. Of course, the last No. 1 to come up for auction at Sotheby's went, "after lively bidding," for $42,200. And it wasn't even in mint condition.

Though returning persistently to his heroes' ups and downs in comics (a largely Jewish enterprise: "Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself"), Chabon arranges his novel as a suite of tableaux depicting life in the 1940s, that "moment unsurpassed in this century for verve, romanticism, polish and a droll, tidy variety of soul." At a party given by a Surrealist art dealer, Joe saves the life of Salvador Dali when the breathing mechanism jams on the diving suit in which the painter has immured himself. Sam visits the remnants of the 1939 World's Fair. The partners attend the premiere of "Citizen Kane," and Joe dances with Dolores Del Rio. Sam becomes a wartime plane spotter at the top of the Empire State Building; his cousin performs as a conjuror at New York bar mitzvahs.

Chabon takes us everywhere: to the back streets of Prague, the headquarters of the Aryan-American League, a gay party, an Alaskan military outpost during the war, Louis Tannen's celebrated magic shop, the fictional Long Island suburb of Bloomtown. We meet fretful bigwigs, mournful artistes, two-bit fanatics: There's snazzy radio star Tracy Bacon, venal Sheldon Anapol, head of Empire Comics, and his cousin Jack Ashkenazy, president of Racy Publications, Inc., the Mighty Molecule (aka "the world's strongest Jew"), one-time presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, a crazed Yossarian-like pilot named Shannenhouse, and, best of all, Rosa Luxemburg Saks, whom Joe first glimpses naked in another man's bed and whom he, not surprisingly, never forgets. When the two meet again, unexpectedly one evening, Joe quite naturally starts to feel "feverish and a little dizzy," but, fortunately, "the cool talcum smell of Shalimar she gave off was like a guardrail he could lean against." The subsequent pages in which Rosa takes the young comic-book artist to her studio, where they shyly talk about painting, dreams and each other, is a masterpiece of tenderness, one of the best depictions in contemporary fiction of two people slowly, hesitantly falling in love.

Ah, but there are so many good things in this novel, it's hard to limit oneself. Heed the street wisdom of George Deasey, cynical pulp novelist and sometime editor of Racy Police Stories: " 'There is only one sure means in life,' Deasey said, 'of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. And that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money.' " Deasey ends up, you will be pleased to learn, working in Washington.

Or take a peek at Longman Harkoo, surrealist: "At a time when an honorable place in the taxonomy of male elegance was still reserved for the genus Fat Man, Harkoo was a classic instance of the Mystic Potentate species, managing to look at once commanding, stylish, and ultramundane in a vast purple and brown caftan, heavily embroidered, that hung down almost to the tops of his Mexican sandals. The little toe of his horny right foot . . . was adorned with a garnet ring. A venerable Kodak Brownie hung from an Indian-beaded strap around his neck." After being introduced to Joe, Harkoo admits that over the years he's already asked 7,118 people to take his photograph, solemnly adding, when told of his guest's European origins, "I have a marked deficit of Czech impressions."

Or consider the great escape artist Bernard Kornblum, who in retirement settles in Prague, his adopted home, "to await the inescapable." Or Joe's adored younger brother Thomas, or his witty doctor parents and his opera-loving grandfather. All these people, one sickeningly knows, must be doomed, even as Joe works desperately to earn big money, to cajole German officials, to do whatever it takes to help his family get out of Hitler's Europe. To escape.

As A.S. Byatt teased out all the implications of the word "possession" in her Booker Prize-winning novel of that name, so Chabon returns, again and again, to the notion of escape. Joe, fearful of any pleasures, believes that he can "justify his own liberty only to the degree that he employed it to earn the freedom of the family he had left behind." After many years Sam eventually releases his true inner self. Rosa flees marital emptiness for fulfilling work at Kiss Comics. Several characters break away from the emotional bondage of the past. That comics themselves are derided as "merely an escape from reality" is also, according to Chabon, nothing less than a "powerful argument on their behalf." For high among art's virtues stands its power to fashion a waking dream, a secondary world in which we can, if we're lucky, find a refuge from the hubbub and heartaches of this one.

Some readers could complain that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay feels structurally ramshackle; others may want to warn Chabon about over-indulging his penchant for lists (brilliant lists, I should add, veritable catalogue arias in prose, but still). The last 100 pages, set in 1955, almost too dramatically modernize the tone of the book, though finally bringing the novel to a more than satisfying conclusion--and not the one expected. To me, even the symbolic names Kavalier and Klayman sound a tad overemphatic, and I quickly grew suspicious of certain parenthetical tidbits, obvious sleights of narrative misdirection. Etc. Etc. But none of this really matters, does it? Michael Chabon has written a long, lovely novel about the American Dream and about comic books (the two, it turns out, may be much the same thing). It's absolutely gosh-wow, super-colossal--smart, funny, and a continual pleasure to read. In a just world--not the world of Sheldon Anapol, I might add--it should win prizes. That wouldn't be at all amazing.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.