I have a hard time reading one book at a time. I’ve tried. I read the research on multi-tasking (most of which I read while doing something else). I can’t help it. No matter how engaged I am in a book, unless I can finish it in one sitting, I’m going to pick up something else along the way. Often that other thing is nonfiction or another novel that ends up being similar in some way despite all outward appearances to the contrary.
On the surface, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon) and Walking the Perfect Square (Reed Farrel Coleman) have little in common. One is a sprawling “literary” novel proudly displaying its Pulitzer sticker and gaudy pulpish cover art. The other is a much tighter, though still spans decades, detective fiction tale with noirish neon on the front.
Kavalier & Clay tells the story of its characters partly through the rise and fall of comics and costumed heroes between the mid-thirties and the mid-fifties. It introduces the notion of Jewish immigrants during WWII, the questionable payment schemes of comics’ Golden Age, the opportunities and pitfalls of NYC in those days. Perfect Square is about the disappearance of a young man and the void he leaves for the family and eventually even the guy hired to find him. It leads the reader through a NYC some 20-25 years later, through clubs and bars and dorms, past political corruption and family dysfunction.
Running along the surface of both books — or buried deep within, depending on how you see it — are issues of perception, outsidership, and stereotypes of Jews and homosexuals. While, by the end of Kavalier & Clay, one of the characters has come to terms with his “fairy” tendencies, some twenty-five years later, the Perfect Square gay community feels just as isolated and threatened.
Kavalier & Clay is the brief history of Joe and Sammy as well as the comics they loved, hated, and created. Perfect Square is the history of the missing person’s case that haunted one man and one sister for twenty years.
If I had to choose only one, I’d have to pick Kavalier & Clay for its constant suspense and the nostalgia for pulp’s golden era. That doesn’t mean Perfect Square wasn’t an enjoyable read because it was. And I’d recommend both.