Berkeley writer wins Pulitzer for epic on immigration

When Michael Chabon was interviewed by the Jewish Bulletin in November, shortly after the release of his epic novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," he reflected that his latest effort was on another level than his previous work.

"This book was a big step," he said.

He was right about that.

The 37-year-old Berkeley author became a literary superhero this week, by winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The sprawling novel about a young Jew who escapes from Europe on the eve of World War II and makes it big in New York's comic book industry is magical in many ways.

Joe Kavalier, who apprenticed with a magician, escapes from Czechoslovakia in a coffin after a scene involving the legendary Golem of Prague.

After he arrives in New York, he and his cousin Sammy Clay thrive — for a while, at least — by creating a character, "The Escapist," a young hero rescued from an orphanage in Central Europe who derives his powers to fight evil from a golden key.

In real life, the creative forces behind the comic industry in that era — considered the Golden Age of comic books — were mainly Jewish men: Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, and Captain America and Hulk creator Jack Kirby, for instance.

Chabon himself was a big fan as a kid.

"I grew up steeped in comic books," he once told an interviewer. Chabon's father would bring him comic books every Friday after work.

As an adult, Chabon one day revisited his old collection.

"When I opened it up and that smell came pouring out, that old smell, I was struck by a rush of memories, a sense of my childhood self that seemed to be continued in there," he has been quoted as saying.

His page-turning novel, replete with Jewish themes, comes after Chabon has moved closer to Judaism.

After a childhood he describes as a "standard suburban Jewish upbringing" spent partially in the planned community of Columbia, Md., Chabon earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

He made a literary splash in the late 1980s with his highly acclaimed debut, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh."

His second novel, "Wonder Boys," about a college professor undergoing a midlife crisis, was made into a movie starring Michael Douglas.

And while "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" is a much more ambitious and wide-ranging work, it shares the element of men struggling with relationships that also appeared in his earlier books.

Chabon and his wife, Israeli-born lawyer and writer Ayelet Waldman, live in Berkeley with their two children.

They are active in Kehilla Community Synagogue, where Chabon sits on the board of directors.

For someone who has been called an "American Vladimir Nabokov," Chabon appears to think of himself in a different light.

Chabon — who once turned down an offer to appear in People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list — describes himself as "nebbishy."

Perhaps that's why, despite the comic feel of the novel and some initial triumphs for its heroes, his characters Kavalier and Clay face multiple struggles. First they lose control of their comic creation. Then, after Kavalier learns that his younger brother died before he could leave Europe, he joins the army — and disappears.

Clay, meanwhile, faces his own personal demons.

Demons appear to be close to Chabon's mind as well.

After winning the Pulitzer, he told the Associated Press: "For some reason, the idea of failure is never very far from my mind, especially when I turn to thinking about writing and literature."