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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: “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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Author Spotlight: Michael Chabon

Simply put, Michael Chabon is a writer’s writer. When I read his work, there are passages on every page that make me want to stand up and applaud. His gifts are prodigious. Reading popular fiction is like enjoying a snack compared to Michael Chabon’s novels, which are full seven-course meals that leave the reader fully sated.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1963, Chabon burst onto the literary scene with his 1988 “coming of age” novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It was much more than a coming of age novel. It explored the relationship between a distant, but powerful father and his confused post-college son, in which the father provided everything but love and understanding. It delved into sexual identity and the main character’s confusion about his sexual orientation. The main character skirted the line between the post-graduate world and the murky terrain of low-life criminals. And the prose was typical Chabon—brilliant and compelling.

There followed a five-year period in which Chabon worked on a novel that was never published. Fountain City was planned as the follow-up to his debut novel. It was the story of an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball park in Miami. Working under deadline pressure, Chabon eventually abandoned the project, then turned around and finished his second novel, Wonder Boys, in an astonishing seven months.

Wonder Boys, published in 1995, focuses on college professor and doomed author Grady Tripp (played by Michael Douglas in the movie). Tripp is laboring over a weighty manuscript that he cannot seem to get into shape for publication. Meanwhile he is having an affair with the wife of a senior official at the college where he works. And he is mentoring a troubled young student.

Chabon’s third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavaler & Clay, saw the author at the peak of his powers. Published in 2000, the novel won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for literature. The story builds on Chabon’s fascination with comic books as it follows two cousins who meet during the throes of the Depression in the late 1930s, but lose touch during World War II. Comic books provide a backdrop for a dark story in which each man struggles to find his soul in a world that is at once welcoming and hostile.

He next published The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in 2007. This is a fine novel that works both as a hardboiled detective story and as a commentary on geopolitics in the Mideast. Set in a fictional Jewish post-war settlement in Alaska, the novel centers on a down-and-out detective who must solve a complex murder.

Chabon’s literary influences include many noted writers of the 20th Century, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Philip Roth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His new novel, Telegraph Avenue, can take its place among his best work. Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Egan (herself a Pulitzer Prize winner), said of Telegraph Avenue, “The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarrantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: Kung Fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; and an interest in the African-American characters and experience.”

It centers on two business partners and dreamers, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records, in a section of Oakland that borders Berkeley, a hodgepodge of cultures and ethnicities and political beliefs. The store is threatened by a megamall development (including a used record store) proposed by a former NFL star named Gibson “G Bad” Goode, sort of a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Meanwhile Archy faces major problems on the home front as his teen-age son whom he hasn’t acknowledged returns from Texas to the surprise of his wife, seven months pregnant. Gwen Shanks has problems of her own as the midwife practice she shares with Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, faces a lawsuit and possible revocation of hospital privileges from a birth gone wrong. As if that’s not enough, Archy’s wayward dad, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings, is back in town after a stint in prison and is looking to shake down a prominent Oakland City Councilman who is the key to the development deal.

In one passage, the reader sees Archy at his lowest: “Archy was tired of Nat, and he was tired of Gwen and her pregnancy, with all the unsuspected depths of his insufficiency that it threatened to reveal. He was tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions. Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”

Telegraph Avenue  is pure Chabon—robust, scintillating and thoroughly satisfying—but I will review it soon on this blog.

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