In this novel the author takes us to Telegraph Avenue. It is a story that explores the profoundly intertwined lives of two Oakland, California families, one black and one white. Here he creates a world grounded in pop culture: Kung Fu, 1970s Blaxploitation films, vinyl LPs, jazz and soul music, and an epic of friendship, race, and secret histories. Longtime band mates Archy and Nat preside over Brokeland Records, a used-record emporium. All is well until a former NFL quarterback, one of the country's richest African Americans, decides to build his latest Dogpile megastore on nearby Telegraph Avenue. Not only could this spell doom for the little shop and its cross-race, cross-class dream, but it opens up past history regarding Archy's untethered dad and a Black Panther-era crime.
Archy and Nat are co-owners of Brokeland, an emporium of used records – mostly jazz and soul from the Sixties on – located at the confluence of Berkeley and Oakland; thus the portmanteau - and as it turns out, double entendre - Brokeland. Gwen and Aviva are also partners, operating a midwife business that primarily serves upper class white women who want to go “natural.”
The interactions of these two families serve as a backdrop for a long meditation on fathers and sons, on following your passion, on the encroachment of big capitalism on small neighborhood institutions, and on the dream of a world in which black and white are not a source of division or tension but just two different shades of the whole variegated mélange of humanity. There are several plot developments that allow these themes to evolve.
As the story begins, Brokeland is threatened by the planned arrival of an entertainment megastore down the street that could undersell Archy and Nat and put them out of business. The struggle for the right to purvey soul is therefore played out in two senses: on the one hand, the big box store would have much more of the vinyl soul, but on the other, the small neighborhood meeting-place would have more of it in heart.
The proposed megastore, Dogpile, is a franchise owned by Gibson Goode, or “G Bad,” a rich black entrepreneur and ex-NFL quarterback. Goode is from the area, and has a history that is enmeshed with that of Archy’s estranged father, Luther Stallings, himself formerly famous as a star of Blaxpolitation films.
Archy not only has a real father, Luther, but a surrogate father, the jazz artist Cochise Jones, who lost his own child shortly after its birth. (Here Chabon echoes the anguish of Leopold Bloom, surrogate father of Stephen Daedalus. Bloom also lost his son shortly after the child was born.) Cochise dies early on in the story, but his shadow helps put into relief both Brokeland and the other characters even after his demise.
The stresses among the characters struggling to cope with the changes in their environment as well as in their own lives come to a head after Cochise Jones, that avatar of the past, is dead and buried. The future rolls in inexorably, and the characters finally come to terms with what they must do to cope with its onset.
Discussion: Telegraph Avenue has many parallels to James Joyce's Ulysses. (After a brief prologue, Archy’s story begins in a way entirely evocative of the opening of Ulysses: “moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby…” [Compare: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”])
There are also a number of nods to Melville and Proust.
The allusions to Moby Dick are numerous and quite inspired, like this richly referential description of Garnet Singletary, landlord of Brokeland:
"Singletary was an information whale, plying his migratory route through the neighborhood, taking in all the gossip, straining it for nutrients through is tireless baleen.”
Proust is also a powerful influence on this work. Remembrance, and nostalgia generally, form the backbone of the story. (Proust’s masterpiece, the seven volume Remembrance of Things Past, is perhaps best known for its nostalgia theme, especially as expressed in the famous episode when the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and the taste brings back memories of his childhood. For Archy in Telegraph Avenue, the trigger is the “Dream of Cream,” a chocolate cake with “interglaciating floes and tundras of whipped cream.”)
The story is book-ended by references to a character who calls himself Mr. Nostalgia, a purveyor of sports cards and other memorabilia from old tv shows and movies. Functioning rather like a Greek chorus, the positioning of this character tells us that this book is about the desperate attempt to hold onto the past in a world catapulting toward a more impersonal future, and about the tenacity of that dream – a tenacity we see in the struggle of indies of all kinds against the big boxes of global capitalism. Brokeland held, within its walls, a history of the neighborhood and the comraderie that brought together people of all colors to “get together and chill, hang out, listen to good music swap wild tales of exaggeration,” and even host the funeral of one of the store’s best customers, Cochise Jones.
And there are numerous allusions – sometimes quite obscure – to iconic aspects of popular culture, especially from the Seventies.
Like Joyce, Chabon includes something for everyone, and it doesn’t really matter if you get them all. As with Ulysses, the fact that the characters are aware of the references matters more, because this illuminates their interests, influences, and levels of cultural engagement. And on a meta-level, it reveals the same about Chabon.
Evaluation: This is not a book I would say I loved, but nevertheless, it definitely served, for me, as another example of Chabon’s genius. His prose is at times marvelous, and the story, while arguably in need of some whittling down, is well-drawn, with characters for whom the author clearly feels empathy and affection. English teachers could have a field day teasing out all the parallels to great books.
Note: For those of you who skipped The Art of Fielding because you didn’t want to read about baseball, it would constitute a similar loss to pass up Telegraph Avenue because you aren’t familiar with jazz from the second half of the twentieth century. Both books are riffs on relationships illuminated, but not overwhelmed, by the dominant metaphor, and both incidentally also spotlight the beauty and normalcy of love between two males. Chabon, in my opinion, is a more accomplished master of the language, but Harbach is more accessible. At any rate, I think neither should be missed.
Depending on who you ask, Michael Chabon is either one of the finest writers of the English language working today or he is THE finest writer of the English language, full stop. My opinion vacillates between the two. A reputation like that comes with some pretty lofty
At the core of this novel is Brokeland Records, described at points as "the church of vinyl" and "an institution." You know the place, or someplace like it--a down on its heels shop that's a gathering spot for a passionate community of its own making. Brokeland is owned by Archy Stallings (black) and Nat Jaffe (white, Jewish) and these partners echo the diversity and cultures of the Berkeley/Oakland neighborhoods straddled by the eponymous avenue.
This is a long book. It's not epic. I'm not even sure that it's sprawling. But it is full. By the time you reach the end, you will be thoroughly familiar with the businesses, marriages, and families of both Archy and Nat. You'll have met and followed their lives, and the lives of their customers, their adversaries, and one well-educated parrot. You'll know the intimate details of their relationships and their personal histories. Chabon packs a whole heap of detail and digression into the course of his 480 pages, and that doesn't even include a boatload of pop culture references to 70's jazz, Blaxploitation films, and martial arts.
Chabon's affection for his characters is contagious and it's hard not to love them, despite some glaring flaws. However, the Brokeland community is facing any number of threats. Perhaps the most looming is a media megastore helmed by an NFL legend that's being planned for the neighborhood. Their David won't survive this Goliath. Archy and Nat's wives, Gwen and Aviva, are also in business together, and Berkeley Birth Partners is likewise under threat due to a birth gone wrong. Things at home are equally challenging. Will Archy and Gwen's marriage survive his infidelities and the appearance of a previously unacknowledged 14-year-old son just weeks before the birth of their first child? A novelist recently told me that "the clock of your mortality is what moves you." Well, births and deaths are major events driving this narrative, and I'd argue that the clock of an 8-months-pregnant wife moves a story along as well. Meanwhile, the Jaffe household is dealing with their adolescent son's first serious infatuation—with Archy's teenage son. And also the fact that Nat is his own worst enemy. And into this rich stew is a complex subplot involving Archy's estranged father and a crime of the past resurfacing.
It's a lot to take in, really. There's a lot going on. Despite all of this, the action of Telegraph Avenue is character-driven rather than plot-driven. At times, the meandering plot seems almost incidental, as we peer through the windows at these character's complicated lives. Some readers may feel frustration with the digressions, but for me, every word was a delight. It was the path, not the destination. And the path of this novel is strewn with Mr. Chabon's legendary language, the staggering vocabulary, the abundant humor, the soaring similes, the awesome freakin' sentences! I, personally, am ill-equipped to articulate just how extraordinary his gifts are. The man is a virtuoso. "Buoyant," "joyful," "exuberant"—these are words that are frequently used to describe Mr. Chabon's writing. He takes on serious subject matter, and deals with it suitably, but his language is simply irrepressible.
Yes, there are some flashy scenes in this book that you will hear about—the 12-page sentence, the Obama cameo—but for my money Chabon's achievement is in the entirety of this work. He's created a world that's familiar and recognizable, yet somehow just a little better, shinier than reality. As I began reading this novel, I thought it was fantastic, but wouldn't replace Kavalier & Clay in my heart. But now I wonder. The real Telegraph Avenue is a short commute from my home, but it's Chabon's version that I will stay with me.
Intriguing plot and strong characters - those two qualities are almost the price of admission for a bestseller, but Chabon wraps his one-two punch of plot and characters in writing that is beyond description. Consider these two sentences from the first page:
"Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant flying tortoise of Japanese cinema. He had the kid tucked up under his left arm as, with his free right hand, he worked through the eighth of fifteen crates from the Benezra estate, the records in crate number 8 favoring, like Archy, the belly meat of jazz, salty and well marbled with funk."
Or this passage from the next page:
""Poor Bob Benezra," Archy said to the random baby. "I did not know him, but I feel sorry for him, leaving all threse beautiful records. That's how come I have to be an atheist, right there, Rolando, seeing all this fine vinyl the poor man had to leave behind." The baby not too young to start knowing the ledge, the cold truth, the life-and-death facts of it all. "What kind of heaven is that, you can't have your records?" The baby, understanding perhaps that it was purely rhetorical, made no attempt to answer this question."
This might be one of my favorites:
"The cakes and cookies at Neldam's were not first-rate, buy they had an old-fashioned sincerity, a humble brand of fabulousness, that touched Archy in this time when everything good in life was either synthesized in transgenic cyborg vats or shade-grown in small batches by a Buddhist collective of flind ex-Carmelite Wiccans" (p. 109).
There is a description of fried chicken that made me crave fried chicken for days after reading it. And a description of giving birth that brought the births of my own kids flooding back.
I would expect this book to get lots of mentions on end-of-the-year best of 2012 lists.
Chabon’s writing here is never less than rich, at times moving up the colour palette to lurid, as when he takes on the stylistic excess of H.P. Lovecraft in order to dramatize young Julie’s imaginative life, or when he follows an exotically coloured, escaping parrot in one long paragraph over ten pages. This might be described as filmic writing, as Chabon moves from scene to scene, with long-shots and close-ups and jump-cuts. Initially it works against a close emotional connection with any one of the large cast of characters. But over the course of such a long novel that temporary distancing is more than compensated for by the emotional impact of culminating plot.
Fathers and sons, without doubt, are the pervasive motif in this novel, as well as the respect due to each. And although motherhood and certainly pregnancy are important both in terms of plot and language—the two main female characters share a midwifery practice—Chabon does not succeed in bringing them or their concerns fully to life. Perhaps there are some territories that remain yet unexplored by this absorbing writer.
Don’t be put off if the music and films referenced in the novel are only on the edge of your awareness. This is not, or at least it shouldn’t be, a contest in geeky knowledge. Indeed the suggestion is, iterated over and over again here, that it doesn’t matter whether you have direct experience of pop-cultural phenomena. Second or third-hand experience will more than suffice. Or even just a name dropped in the right place.
Plenty to think about and enjoy here. Highly recommended.
Telegraph Ave is in a rundown and mostly Black part of Oakland which is home to Brokeland Records a used vinyl store in a store front that once was a barber shop. It continues to be a
Archy, in a eulogy for one of the regulars and held in the store, likens life to a caravan on the old Silk Road. It is a long, hard journey that takes a while, filled with bandits and sandstorms but "you are carrying the light of civilization back and forth but all around you, the tribes just want to keep their warring, and killing, and keeping track of what makes them better than everybody else." But you keep on "And every so often, every few hundred miles, maybe, you got these oases, right, these caravansaries, where they all get together and chill, hang out, listen to good music, swap wild tales of exaggeration. . . that was kind of our dream."
And that is what Brokeland Records is, an oasis amid the wretchedness and the banality of life. Or is was. A big box store is coming in down the street that will nail that final and fateful nail in the coffin of their business, their lives and possibly the lifeof Telegraph Ave. Oh, does this strike so deep a chord in my being - the fact of a brief and beautiful oasis of an independent bookstore amid the banality and stupidity of life in general and seeing perhaps the last days of that safe calm oasis.
They play the theme song of Cochise Jones, the dead man at the wake - It's Too Late and the people there realize "It's Too Late . . . It was about some large percentage of the aggregate wishes, plans, and ambitions espoused by the people gathered here today. . . The song was about the people gathered here. It was about Titus growing up with no father, and Aviva trying to hold on to her one and only baby, the the dream of Brokeland Records."
I think that so many people today can read these lines like reading their own story or the stories of others - people that everyone knows now who have lost their jobs or seen their businesses squashed by some big entity "like flies to wanton schoolboys" (King Lear) But this novel is also about coping: about going on after your dream is gone. In the end it is very much a missive of hope.
You fall in love with the story and with these amazingly drawn characters. These people will stay with you for a long long time but their stories are our stories, their dreams like ours, some, or many, fated to die because the times demand it. This book strikes a nerve deep within me that reverberates and plays the story of my life and that is the beauty and worth of literature - to reach out a hand to you and you alone and touch your life. That is the definition of deathless prose.
I recently relocated to the Bay Area, and in preparation for that move, investigated publishing companies that might have openings. As a bibliophile, I have this (admittedly idealized) dream of working in a publishing company, just reading books all day. What could be better? It was through this investigation that I was reminded: Chabon resides in the Bay Area. I rediscovered this information when studying the McSweeney's website. McSweeney's, which publishes a fairly well-known quarterly, has several other projects, one of which is printing nonfiction works with some of their contributors, including Chabon.
Almost accidentally, I had the opportunity to attend a Michael Chabon lecture-interview. Just a few days prior, my new roommate Jessica and I had been discussing our mutual admiration for Chabon. As she found out, he was going to be appearing on the day of his new book release for a conversation with Adam Savage, co-host of Mythbusters, as part of San Francisco's City Arts lectures, and in support of 826 Valencia. I took the BART into the city, and walked leisurely to the Herbst Theatre, newly purchased, hot-off-the-presses, brand new Chabon book in my bag. Sitting outside the theatre, reading my new acquisition, I received several inquiries from fellow Chabon lovers, also attending the event. "Is that the new one?" as though an object above the need of a more descriptive noun. The conversation was interesting, inspiring. It made me want to go home and write. (Not given to Chabon's gift with prose and impressive language, however, I refrained.) Jessica, having recently completed writing her own novel, informed me she now felt a part of the brotherhood of authors; even though there is still much to be done, she could relate to the feeling of elation, the urge toward the end of writing to just be done with your characters, the realization that you didn't really know what you were writing about until you finished.
I managed to read about ten pages of Telegraph Avenue before I entered the theatre for the event that night. I knew that it was going to be a good one when I laughed out loud before the end of the second page. Even before that, I fell in love with the cover, which is a record (the book is about a music store), on both the front and back. The "tracks" of the record indicate sections of the book on the front, and on the back, praise for the book. It's set within the confines of the Oakland-Temescal-Berkeley area, or "Brokeland." As a resident of the area, Chabon related at the lecture, he indulged himself in waxing poetic on his most loved locations and happenings in the area. It's hard to begrudge him the indulgence with such beautiful exposition. This book, as with Kavalier & Clay, was much more exposition than conversation. In this way, Chabon personifies the ideal author for me, utilizing words to paint pictures, rather than lazily having his characters do the work with their dialogue. For me, his books (although modern in their subjects) are a throwback to the Romantic authors. Like Victor Hugo, who wrote pages describing Paris before beginning the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The book, while on the surface about a record store in the Brokeland area, at the heart is about relationships. We follow Archy and Nat, and their families, as they try to deal with the new mega-music store which will soon be moving to town and ostensibly put their already struggling record store out of business. Their wives are also partners, in a midwifery business. Typical Chabon, there is also a young man who is struggling with his sexuality, although he struggles less and less as the book goes along. Telegraph Avenue also introduced me more to the new area in which I live. (I actually read Telegraph Avenue as I traveled on a bus down Telegraph Avenue, headed into Berkeley.) Telegraph Avenue is typical, brilliant Chabon.
Yes, there's a bit of bravura writing (like the not totally necessary one-chapter- 13-page-long sentence, but even that is forgivable when seen as an homage to the Tarantinoesque long continuous shot. In fact, in my mind's eye that's how I saw it, slowly following 58). I enjoyed the nerdy comics references, even most of the movie references but I wished I knew more about jazz because many of those were lost on me. However, more than anything, Chabon has an amazing touch for unforgettable characters. And while I still consider Kavalier & Clay my favorite Chabon novel, I think Julie Jaffe and Titus Joyner have just become my favorite characters of his.
In a year with many good books I enjoyed, this is without a doubt, the one I enjoyed the most.
This being the case, audio book publishers should be lining up at the door of Clarke Peters because, as he proves with Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, this man is good. Peters has such a way of breathing life into characters, varying voices and accents, and making it all sound so alive, that I hated to see the book end – despite it being almost 19 hours long.
Telegraph Avenue is as much about a place, the Brokeland neighborhood between Berkeley and Oakland, as it is about the people who live there. It is the summer of 2004, and things are about to change for the book’s central characters. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, one of them black, the other white, are best friends and business partners who run Brokeland Records, one of a dying breed of record shops that still specialize in reselling classic vinyl record albums from the past. The record store, being as much a neighborhood hangout as a business, attracts a regular crowd of hipsters, amateur philosophers, local politicians, and old men who remember when the building was home to the best barbershop around. But now, the business, already on shaky financial ground, is being threatened by a former NFL great who hopes to open one of his Dogpile megastores just up the street from Brokeland Records – an event that the record shop cannot hope to survive.
Brokeland Records is not a business that will ever make its owners rich, so Archy and Nat depend on their wives, Gwen and Aviva, to help make ends meet. The women are midwives in a respected, and successful, partnership of their own that they call Berkeley Birth Partners. Gwen and Aviva love what they do and have no shortage of clients, but they are suffering a professional crisis of their own and the future of Berkeley Birth Partners is in jeopardy.
Telegraph Avenue is a big book, one filled with numerous supporting characters with stories of their own. Among them are Archy’s father, a former blaxploitation film star on the hustle; Titus Joyner, the son Archy did not know existed before he showed up on Archy’s doorstep; Julius Jaffe, Nat’s sometimes gay, sometimes not-gay son; Gibson Goode, ex-NFL superstar quarterback and “fifth-richest black man in America; and a famous jazz musician whose wake is held in the record shop, open casket and all. There is a lot going on here, so much that readers might be distracted from the main storyline at times, but it is one hell of a story – especially if you let Clarke Peters read it to you.
Rated at: 4.0
Unlike a Tarantino plot, though, Chabon's novel doesn't depict a world of violence, betrayals and revenge. The story ambles along, following a set of characters who are just trying to muddle through their rather ordinary lives. And if the characters at times try to delude themselves that they are akin to one of Tarantino's badasses, Chabon doesn't allow them their delusion for long. He can't resist pulling back the curtain and revealing that his people are just as pathetic and clueless as the rest of us.
The story centers around Archy, co-owner of a used-record store, whose life is suddenly unraveling. Oakland's most famous homeboy, ex-pro football player Gibson Goode, is planning to open a media mega-store just a few blocks away, which will surely put Archy's record store out of business. Archy's very pregnant wife, Gwen, has found out that he is cheating on her and is considering giving up her career as a midwife. His no-good father, a former blaxploitation star named Luther, has turned up like a bad penny, clearly in some kind of trouble. And his teenage son by an ex-girlfriend, whom Archy has never met, has also shown up unexpectedly, needing a place to live.
Chabon plays out each scene meticulously, combining convoluted sentences with evocative images to give the novel a cinematic feel, as if projected on a movie screen inside the reader's head. And he loads on the allusions, not just to Tarantino's films, but to the kung-fu and blaxploitation movies that inspired them, to the funk, jazz and blues that comprise the novel's soundtrack, as well as comic books, science fiction, leisure suits. Chabon's pop culture vocabulary is vast, and many readers may not feel like they can keep up with the torrent of cultural references he makes.
Chabon is a talented writer, but the story that unfolds in Telegraph Avenue winds up being a little disappointing, given the skill employed in telling it. The ending feels too pat, all the loose ends neatly tied up with some convenient symbolism. In comparison to Chabon's earlier achievements — his Pulitzer Prize-winning homage to comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or his experiment in the unusual sub-genre of alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen's Union — Telegraph Avenue is going to suffer.
But if you just want to watch the man write, Telegraph Avenue is well worth your time. Chabon's passion for this place, this time and, above all, these people can be felt in every word.
The eclectic characters in Telegraph Avenue are thoroughly enjoyable. Nat and Archy’s, as well as Aviva and Gwen’s, friendships cross the racial and economic divide and create a beautiful sense of hope that our world is truly becoming colorblind in its interactions. The entire cast is larger than life with their imposing demeanor and enormous personalities. Anger, hope, love, and every other emotion roll off of each character in almost visible waves, and their immense sense of personal identity is striking in their certainty. They know who they are, are comfortable in their own skin, and are not willing to change that for anyone or anything. It is tremendously satisfying to read about characters who are so sure of themselves, even as they grapple to reassess that sense of identity in the aftermath of certain events.
What sets Telegraph Avenue apart from other works of fiction is its prose. Lyrical in nature, it tends towards the grandiose, bordering on loquacious. Yet, because of, and not in spite of, his verbosity, Mr. Chabon captures the stark beauty of the decaying neighborhood in a way that would be virtually impossible had he kept his descriptions shorter and less poetic. Even better, from its stream-of-consciousness transitions to the rambling dialogue, it encapsulates the jazz that is such a huge part of Telegraph Avenue’s identity as well as Archy’s and Nat’s livelihood. It is a gorgeous use of syntax that sets the tone for the entire novel.
Telegraph Avenue is a sprawling, verbose glimpse into the ordinary struggles of two families and the events that occur in their ever-evolving urban neighborhood. Given its imposing cast of characters, effusive narration, and complex interactions, it can be an intimidating and frustrating piece of fiction. Yet, to readers who take the time and effort required to get through the novel, the story is a rewarding experience in the style of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Each character, no matter how trivial, adds a layer of realistic complexity to the story of a community trying to survive in a world of suburban development and the ubiquitous chain storm invasion. Simple and poignant, Telegraph Avenue reemphasizes the meaning and importance of family as well as neighborhood identity and survival.
Clearly plenty of readers enjoy having their minds expanded by such a prodigious talent, but I found much of the information show-offy. It's amazing how many varied metaphors Chabon can spin, but occasionally it would be great to have a few sentences you don't need a road map to get through. A character can't simply reach for a tube of superglue, instead he has to get "a tube of superglue, the crusted tip of its nozzle, forever pierced like some allegorical wound in a story of King Arthur, by its tiny red-capped pin."
If that talent were used more judiciously, the reading might not be such a heavy slog.
In the previews, I saw a lot of praise for Chabon capturing the current cultural zeitgeist but I guess I didn't get that. He has four main story lines - an African American, Archy, and his Jewish partner, Nat. have a record store in Oakland that's under threat when a former NFL star turned businessmen is thinking about opening a megastore in their neighborhood; their wives are also getting into similar trouble as midwives when they have to rush a mother to a hospital during a difficult delivery and an obstetrician accuses them of negligence; a son Archy didn't know he had shows up in Oakland trying to connect with his father, and Nat's son, who's the same age, has developed a crush on him; and finally, Archy's father, Luther a martial arts expert turned crack addict is trying to rekindle his earlier days as a star in blaxploitation films while also blackmailing an old friend who is now a powerful businessman and city councilman, but who in his younger days killed a local troublemaker as a favor to Huey Newton of the Black Panthers.
It sounds like a lot, but the storylines themselves didn't feel like enough to fill up 465 pages. If you took out all the authors' efforts to prove his encyclopedic knowledge of every subject from the history of jazz to superhero comic books, it felt like each story could have been told neater and faster.
There are some interesting historical details about the loss of mom & pop-type stores with the invasion of corporate chains. Mixed in with that is an examination of the promise of urban renewal that a Magic Johnson-like figure offers by investing in the inner city. There are also interesting details about the history of midwifery and the conflict that Archy’s wife, Gwen, feels between the historical importance that midwives had in the black culture vs. what it is today – primarily an option of privileged white women. In one of my favorite passages, a night school instructor gives the 14-year-old boys and the other class participants a hysterically funny lecture on how Vincent Minelli’s The Bandwagon influenced Quentin Tarantino. But this novel, for me, doesn’t capture an era the way that Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities did (although admittedly Wolfe doesn’t have anywhere near the writing chops Chabon does.)
Too often, though, the novel gets bogged down with evidence of how smart Chabon is thrown up on every page. There are other novelists I love, like Robert Cohen, whose genius and prolific imagination are evident in every sentence. But Cohen fills his novels with great insights into what it means to be human. I don't need to read several pages about how to reassemble an organ speaker, as Chabon does, with the writer proving he knows the exact name for every part.
With Chabon, he also often makes you feel stupid for not having a Ph.D in pop culture. Not of all his references are self-contained. Near the end of the novel when Archy's wife Gwen is giving birth, Nat's son, Julius, is helping her deal with the pain by recounting scenes from Star Trek. He writes about an episode in which the female companion to the evil Kirk uses a "Tantalus Field" to overcome her adversaries. When Gwen faces the prospect of having the doctor who charged her with negligence deliver her baby, she asks Julius to cast a Tantalus Field on the doctor. Now I vaguely remember seeing that episode, but I don't remember what the Tantalus Field was, and I'm not reeducated on exactly what it was by Chabon's description.
My final complaint is one I've had with previous Chabon novels. He often writes gay lovemaking scenes in very specific detail, and while I don't have any problem with that, I wish he would give hetero lovemaking equal time. The two sex scenes in this novel are not for the squeamish because they involve sexual experimentation between the two 14-year-old boys and an episode when the philandering Archy sodomizes, consensually, his wife's transgendered assistant.
I don't regret finishing this one, although it took me a long while to get through it because I wasn't always motivated to pick it up. His writing reminds me of Zadie Smith. It may sound oxymoronic but there's just too much sheer brilliance on every page and in every sentence. Call me insecure, and maybe even a philistine, but I prefer to read novelists whose own writing style is less obvious so that I can get into the characters and be moved by the circumstances they find themselves in. I find Chabon's style, which constantly reminds me there's a much more brilliant mind than mine stringing these sentences together, keeps me too disconnected from the characters. And what is the infamous 11-page sentence, other than a break in the characters' story to show another explicit example of what a virtuoso Chabon is?
I didn't always feel this way about Chabon. I haven't read all of his books, but I did like Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the marvelous The Wonder Boys. But the Pulitzer-prize winning Kavalier and Clay left me feeling the same way this one did. After this experience, he may be off my must-read author list.
I'm sure this book will be on many "Best of the Year" lists, but it seems to me book critics and judges are mesmerized by the kind of writing that often turns me off.
My only quibble, really, is with a certain grooviness factor that Chabon laces the story with. A serious urban neighborhood is presented as almost wholly charming and benign, and characters who are threatening in nature are nevertheless devoid of the sense of menace we might expect. I guess what I'm getting at is that Chabon's Tom Robbins is showing a little too much for my taste. I don't want to over-state this complaint. I loved the book overall and recommend it heartily. The story holds many more issues than I've touched on here, such as nostalgia, maturity, friendship and commitment to ideals, relationships and community (there, I've touched on them). It is a book rich in ideas, in other words.
I found it most interesting on the subject of fatherhood, which is something that a number of
It may be even better if you know/care about old school jazz / R&B / vinyl.
But don't worry there's very little gore here and
Honestly, though, plot isn't the attraction here. Which is just as well, as it meanders around a lot and then just sort of peters out, possibly because it's reached the point where Chabon felt like he had enough pages and might as well wrap it up. But that is absolutely fine and does not make the book one whit less enjoyable. Because, holy crap, when he puts his mind to it, Chabon can write. Sentence after sentence proves to be an utter joy to read: smart and fresh and insightful, sometimes moving and sometimes fun. Also, packed with references to everything from science to comic books to 80s kitsch to kung fu movies to the entire complex history of African-American music. In fact, I'd say that at heart this novel is very much a celebration of culture. All kinds of culture: black and white, high and low, serious and silly and everything in-between, all stirred together into one great big glorious stew. The allusions to things I'm familiar with were all aptly and delightfully used, and the ones to things I wasn't familiar with, mostly musical things, made me feel as if I somehow were familiar with them. I'm not quite sure how Chabon manages that, but my hat is off to him for it.
Michael Chabon is also a writer who can take small themes and make them big. And he can take big themes and make them apply to the individual in a private manner. What could be bigger than the intimate story of a big box entertainment store intruding into a tightly knit small community, threatening the existence of some of the local, home-grown establishments? What could be more private than learning the truth about one's father? What could be more intimate than the introspection to determine if one wants to continue one's life in the trajectory it has taken? What could be more fundamental than trying to define the soul of a community?
And Michael Chabon is a writer who takes all these ingredients and makes entertaining stories. All of the above is evident in Telegraph Avenue. It is the story of Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, owners of Brokeland Records – a vinyl record store. It is also the story of their wives – Gwen and Aviva – who are midwives. The midwifery business faces unique challenges – in this instance primarily focused on maintaining their status in the medical community. Brokeland Records has an even bigger problem - a Dogpile entertainment store is coming and it will effectively destroy Brokeland Records. This is the framework upon which the lives of these and many other characters move forward. We've got a blimp, we've got a Blaxploitation Kung Fu star, we've got a master of the Hammond B3 organ, we've got a lot of fun, strange stuff. And the story of Dogpile coming in is simply the inflection point that makes these characters begin to learn (or not learn) more about themselves.
All well and good. All the best we have come to expect of Chabon. All engrossing and entertaining and encapturing. But there was one stumbling block; there are some characters (important characters) with character flaws that just can't be forgiven. One or two of the important characters – the pivotal characters – are just not likable.
Now I'm not the kind that has to have perfect people. I can really like the type that are despicable. I can truly enjoy the flawed. But sometimes there are character traits/flaws I cannot get past – I cannot accept as "Well, they are just a lovable person and I will forgive them." (Not related to this book, but it is why I disliked Zorba the Greek.)
And that happens here – character flaw I could not get past. And those flaws kept me from cozening up to the characters as much as I needed to. (What do I mean? One example – cheating on your pregnant wife.)
This does not destroy the book, but it does knock it down a peg or two. I enjoyed the book, I enjoyed a number or the characters, and I was glad to be along for the ride. But I took the ride with one eye out wondering if I would need an escape.
The best parts were in the sub-plot of Archy's wife Gwen, a practicing mid-wife, she herself currently pregnant, struggling with the infidelity her carousing husband's present and past keep blindsiding her with. This story seemed more tangible and interesting than Archy's haze of a failing store and friendship, a birth and death, and a teenage son surfacing from Archy's not-long-ago past.
There are gems throughout the text though, and not an un-enjoyed read. I would like to read more of Chabon's oeuvre.
What Chabon does best in his work is taking groups of characters and weaving them together. This is certainly no exception. You’ve got two families in Berkley, you’ve got the Berkley business community, and there’s a supporting cast of blaxploitation stars. And all these characters manage to weave in and out of the story—sometimes their part in the narrative doesn’t add much, but they’re still enjoyable. And the thing that works the best in this whole narrative is the relationships. You’ve got Nat and Archy, who are best friends and business partners, and they go through stages of “running a business comes first before being a friend.” You’ve got their wives, Aviva and Gwen, who are more professional in their relationship (both personal and business), but still manage to be supportive and caring for one another. You’ve got major parallels between Archy and his absentee father, Luther Stallings, and Archy’s distance from his own son Titus. The one relationship that I hooked on was between Titus and Nat’s son, Julius. I really liked these two. They do play into the whole teenager aspect of they’re trying to find themselves and figure out who they are, plus you’ve got Julius’s crush on Titus and the whole relationship dance (I loved that Julius didn’t go through the coming out issue). But there’s something about here that makes it feel a little more genuine.
I also really liked the ongoing subplot of the Gibson Goode megastore that’s moving into the Berkley community. While I’m not surprised that Nat takes the side of keeping the local businesses intact, what I liked was that both sides of the argument—for the gentrification of a small business area or against it—are actually presented and discussed. Yes, the issue swings around to being against the megastore, but I liked that the whole subplot isn’t shoved to fit on the protagonists’ side.
I have to tangent here—I don’t really read a lot of literary novels. Part of it because I find novel after novel about the death of the American Dream and adults standing around having a midlife crisis and that they can’t deal with things boring. (Also, just how prevalent they are. Take a look at adult fiction, it makes you wonder if any family is happy and functional.) And yes, there’s a little bit of that in this book. Mostly with Archy and Gwen, dealing with Gwen’s pregnancy and the appearance of Titus. I get why Gwen is frustrated with Archy, that he lied to her about not having a kid already, and that her confidence is shot because of how big she’s gotten. But it feels like that’s all her character is for. It also doesn’t help that—despite the fact that there’s a whole subplot with Gwen dealing with the fallout from a racist statement from a doctor—she does come off as an angry black woman, and there’s really not much more to her. I wanted to see more done with Gwen and Aviva, and it did disappoint.
My other issue is there’s a LOT going on in this book and somehow it all ties together? Unlike in Kavalier & Clay, where the various subplots had an effect on what was going on in the plot, this felt like a bunch of events that just happened to be tied together and the people involved are happenstance. There’s a Black Panther murder, there’s a signing at a collectibles convention, there’s the Gibson Goode store, there’s Titus showing up, there’s Gwen chewing out a doctor for using a slur towards her, there’s Titus and Julius, Obama makes a cameo for some reason (to give us the theme of the book I guess?)—I felt like I should have gotten the flowcharts I used to use for Lost and rework them for this book. The actual writing is fantastic, I don’t fault Chabon for his writing style. But there were moments that I had to go back and reread a few pages because I was sure I missed something.
Not to mention, it’s a very self-aware novel. As I mentioned above, blaxploitation stars play a large role in the book—specifically Luther Stallings—so there’s a lot of talk of blaxploitation movies and the conventions of the genre. And while I’ve seen Chabon do this before in other books, going on about particular conventions of a subgenre, here it just doesn’t work. (It also doesn’t help that he constantly goes on about Tarantino’s influence from blaxploitation and doesn’t really seem to get into actual films of the Seventies.)
It is a well-written book, but I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone just starting Chabon. A longtime fan of his will probably really enjoy this; but as a casual fan, I don’t know how soon in the long term I’ll pick this up again.