Book Review: “Telegraph Avenue,” by Michael Chabon

Like the mixed-race, polyglot neighborhood where it is set, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is a tasty, multi-layered, hearty stew that bubbles and boils and ultimately simmers, but never overflows its huge pot. Or, to draw on the 1970s jazz, funk and R&B that provides one of the backdrops to this meaty novel, Telegraph Avenue is hot and cool at the same time, syncopated beats flowing into free form and back.

Telegraph Avenue is the dividing line between a gritty section of Oakland and the edge of the University of California, Berkeley, campus. The novel centers on business partners and musicians Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records in a former barbershop on Telegraph Avenue. Barely scraping by, their record store is threatened by a mega-mall development that former NFL football star Gibson “G Bad” Goode wants to build nearby, which will include movie theaters, restaurants, and a used vinyl store with a huge collection that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

That’s not the only threat facing Archy and Nat. Archy’s wife, Gwen Shanks, is 36 months pregnant and catches her husband cheating on her. Gwen and Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, operate a midwife business that is in danger of losing its hospital privileges after a birth goes wrong and Gwen is berated by a racist doctor. To make matters worse, Archy’s absentee father, Luther Stallings, a former blaxploitaton film star in the 1970s, is back on the scene to blackmail his old friend, a mortician and powerful Oakland City Councilman named Chandler Flowers, over the murder of a Black Panther. Flowers is the key to the development deal.

Archy’s problems are compounded when a son he has never acknowledged, Titus, shows up and 14-year–old Julius, Nat’s gay son, falls in love with him.

Several themes run through the various plot strands. The frayed relationships between fathers and sons is one theme. Archy has no love for his dad, Luther, who abandoned him, and Titus, in turn, resents Archy. Archy dreads becoming a dad. As Chabon explains, “Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks, open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.”

References to the 1970s, from soul music to movies, abound as Chabon riffs on the nostalgia theme. A dealer in memorabilia, early in the book, reflects that these nostalgic items “were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you. Their value was indexed only to the sense of personal completeness, perfection of the soul, that would flood you when, at last, you filled the last gap on your checklist.”

The novel is ultimately a story of redemption and forgiveness. Chabon is one of the most gifted writers of our time and his talents are on full display. Though his over-the-top prose at times is a distraction from the story, Chabon’s writing is so precise and vivid that this minor fault is easily overlooked.

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