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Favorite Book of 2012: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I read a number of outstanding books in 2012. Among these were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers, Defending Jacob by William Landay, and Canada by Richard Ford. However, my favorite book of 2012 was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

This is a highly subjective judgment, but, for me, a great book not only must have great characters and tell a compelling story, but it must say something important about the human condition. Chabon’s book does all of these things and more. It holds a mirror up to the times in which we live. The 2012 national election was proof yet again that we live in a divided nation, with 51 percent of voters supporting President Obama and 49 percent voting for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet, political analysts noted a subtle, but permanent change in the electorate in 2012. No longer will elections be decided by older white males. The demographics of the country are changing. As I write this, Congressional leaders are deadlocked over a fix to the fiscal cliff, further evidence of what divides us.

Chabon acknowledges this diversity in Telegraph Avenue, but his message is one of hope. Telegraph Avenue is the fault line between a hardscrabble neighborhood of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley campus. Chabon mines the rich diversity of this area as the setting serves to underscore the themes of racial, gender and political divisions, but he is not just interested in what divides us, but what brings us together.

The story centers on business partners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a barely surviving used record store called Brokeland Records. The store is threatened when superstar athlete-turned-business-tycoon Gibson Goode,  proposes a mega entertainment complex for the neighborhood, including a used record store that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

One of the major aspects of this novel is music, specifically the soul music of the 1970s. At one point, Goode laments the changes he has witnessed in music. “The world of black music has undergone in many ways a kind of apocalypse, you follow me,” says Goode. “You look at the landscape of the black idiom in music now, it is post-apocalyptic. Jumbled-up mess of broken pieces. Shards and samples. Gangsters running in tribes. That is no disrespect to the music of the past two decades. Taken on its own terms I love it…But face it, I mean, a lot has been lost. Ellington, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, we got nobody of that caliber even hinted at in black music nowadays. I’m talking about genius, composers, know what I’m saying.”

Goode is talking about soul music, but he could just as easily be discussing politics, civility, or the state of our nation as a whole.

Later in the story, Nat Jaffe reflects on the unlikely business partnerships that he and his white wife, Aviva, have struck with Archy Stallings and his wife, Gwen Shanks. The breakup of their partnerships, he concluded, had more to do with class than race. “The differences in class and education among the four of them canceled out without regard for stereotype or cultural expectation: Aviva and Archy both had been raised by blue-collar aunts who worked hard to send them to lower-tier colleges. The white guy was the high school dropout , the black woman upper middle-class and expensively educated. It just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to hold up the world.”

In the end Stallings has an epiphany of sorts and the reader is left with a feeling that things will be okay, that this volatile cast of characters will figure out a way to get along.

What was your favorite book of 2012?


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Book Review: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain’s debut novel centers on the Iraq War and the cultural and social values for which our soldiers put their lives on the line. The year is 2004 or 2005 and the Bush Administration trots out “Bravo Company,” an Army unit, for a two-week PR tour. Bravo Company has achieved viral celebrity status when a Fox News embedded crew filmed their heroic efforts to quell an ambush. Fountain’s setting, though, is not the battlefield, but a football field. The story begins as the war heroes wrap up their two-week tour with an incongruous appearance at halftime with Destiny’s Child during the Dallas Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium.

The main character is Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Texan who joined the Army rather than face jail time after trashing his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s Mercedes. Bravo Company is accompanied by Hollywood producer Albert, who owns the movie rights to their story. In a nod to Joseph Heller’s classic war novel, Albert faces a Catch 22: the film based on Bravo Company’s heroic actions cannot draw financial backers until a marquee star is signed up, but no star will commit until the movie has financial support.

Fountain contrasts the abundance enjoyed by the well-heeled crowd in their luxury boxes, pumping hands with the Army heroes, with the gritty existence the soldiers experience in Iraq.

The author’s prose is both penetrating and eloquent, as he writes about the disconnect between the patriotic fervor at home and the soldier’s perspective. At one point, Billy reflects: “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war? Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets. He wonders if there’s a saturation point, a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens.”

The suspense that drives the plot is three-fold: the movie deal Albert may or may not be able to negotiate (promising each member of Bravo Company $100,000 from the film), Billy’s sister’s attempts to convince him to desert the Army and leave the stadium with an anti-war group, and the intense feelings Billy develops for a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, Faison. Fountain ratchets up the tension as the football game progresses. Will Albert get the soldiers a big payday and will it matter, since they are hours from being shipped back to Iraq to complete their tours of duty? Will Billy desert the Army and hide away with Faison?

Fountain’s highly detailed description of the excesses of football—the beef-fed gargantuan athletes, the gladiator equipment, the marketing machine hawking Cowboys apparel, the pompous pageantry of the halftime show—are in sharp relief to what Billy is feeling inside. Is this what we’re fighting for in Iraq? Billy at one point wonders when “America became a giant mall with a country attached.”

At times, Fountain lays it on too thick, portraying one patriotic fat cat after another, gushing over the war heroes. But this serves to drive home his point: war is not a game like football, where we cheer for our soldiers and root for quick, decisive victories. War is messy and it is hell for those young men and women who, in the case of Bravo Company after its two-week tour, wonder what values they are fighting to uphold.

In the end, Billy is true to his values and the reader is left to ponder the state of America’s values.


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