Monday, January 17, 2011

Bacon Traces

Tonight I finished reading Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It's a terrific read, an epic story of the origins of superhero comics with generous dashes of Jewish culture, romance, escape artistry, horror, childhood, parenthood, World War II, tragedy, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and more besides. Rather than traipse the well-trod ground of the book's many virtues, I'd like to focus on the one that I keep coming back to: the characterization of Tracy Bacon.

Bacon is the voice actor for the radio incarnation of Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay's superhero creation the Escapist. A closeted homosexual--his section of the story takes place in 1941, in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor--he immediately zeros in on Sam as a kindred spirit and the two begin a clandestine romance. It ends in misunderstanding and heartbreak when, just before the two are to move to Los Angeles, police raid a gay getaway that they've attended. Sexually humiliated, Sam decides that burying that part of himself is preferable to undergoing such shame again and ends their relationship. He never again sees Bacon, who enlists in the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor, and is killed in battle over the Solomon Islands.

Bacon inhabits only one of the book's six parts. He enters halfway through the story, yet his role is vital. His relationship with Sam, for one thing, provides the narratively useful function of providing a love interest for the second of Kavalier and Clay's titular characters. The humiliation Sam undergoes because of their love not only resurfaces in the Senate hearings on comic books toward the novel's end, but also motivates him to 'play it straight' and marry Joe's girlfriend Rosa and raise their son as his own after Joe abruptly joins the Navy.

This would all amount to so much melodrama, were Chabon's characters not so deftly drawn. Bacon, perhaps because I'm predisposed to like a charming gay love interest, is to me both one of the most and least defined characters in the book's cast, in the best ways possible.

Here is Chabon's description of his entry into the story:

Bacon was such a perfect Escapist that one would have thought he had been cast to play the role in a film, not on the air. He was well over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, with a dimple on his chin and glossy blond hair fitted to the top of his head like a polished brass plate. He wore an oxford shit unbuttoned over a ribbed undershirt, blue jeans, and socks with no shoes. His muscles were not as large, perhaps, as the Escapist's, but they were distinctly visible. Clean-favored, thought Sammy, and imperially slim.

I immediately thought of Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, and all of Bacon's lines I heard in Hammer's (if you'll forgive the gushing) sumptuous basso profundo. It's one of the more vivid character visualizations I can remember having.

Bacon sweeps Sam off his feet without Sam even realizing it, but it comes with a palpable sense of desperation. In their first meeting he is quick to rehearse a rich biography of travel and cultivation, which prompts Sam to observe that Bacon is in fact quite lonely and very possibly bullshitting him. This is, of course, partially because Bacon is courting him. Their relationship, though, is genuine, with Bacon making the most astute, penetrating (pardon the term), and succinct appraisal of Sam in the entire book: "It's not comic books you think are inferior, it's you."

Their romance provides some of the novel's standout episodes, particularly an almost literally electric first kiss atop the Empire State Building. Chabon's depictions of the joy of gay self-discovery--the clashing impulses in a first encounter, the thrill of covert love-making--are so finely observed that one could understand his earlier fear of being thought by his readers to be gay. (Such a concern is misplaced, for to think he was gay for this reason would constitute the highest praise.)

In spite of Tracy Bacon's earnestness with Sam, the sense of his putting-on never entirely goes away. His forwardness, the way he actively seeks out unsafe or restricted areas to explore, are brazen enough that one begins to wonder if it isn't all just a distraction for others, and himself, from matters he would just as soon forget. A passage describing Bacon's immediate brawling with the cops hints at this:

As for Tracy Bacon, he did not give the question of fighting or not fighting the police a moment's thought. Without revealing too much of the true history that he had so assiduously labored to erase and reconstitute, it can be said that Bacon had been falling afoul of the police since the age of nine, and defending himself with his fists since well before that. He waded into the writhing knot of knight-sticks and broad-brimmed hats and cowering men, and began swinging. It took four men to subdue him, which they did with considerable brutality.

This is the closest we ever get to learning that "true history." Bacon is shortly thereafter dumped and later killed off-page. Only the book's author knows the full truth, and even that is not certain.

The term 'well-drawn characters' does not necessarily denote exhaustive detail. Tracy Bacon is adamant that not even his lover know his past, and Michael Chabon's restraint in making this true of the narrative--we know of Bacon only what Sam knows--makes the character's impact all the more acutely felt. An elaborate portrait can show and tell us many things, but just as effective, by way of intimation and suggestion, are the few and well-placed lines of an effective sketch.

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