Saturday, April 20, 2013

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

I am just back from a week's vacation, during which I read quite a bit, so will have several new posts over the next couple of days. I finished Telegraph Avenue on the trip--I actually started it on a trip in December, picked it up on a trip in February, and finally returned to it in April. Since I spent no time reading the book between trips, you might guess, correctly, that I didn't love it. On the other hand, I had no trouble remembering the characters or what was happening to them each time I picked it up after a two-month break.

So who were these characters? The story revolves around two intertwined Oakland/Berkeley, California, families, one African-American, one Anglo. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are partners in Brokeland Records, a used vinyl store specializing in jazz that has both geographically and socially taken over the space of a barber shop in a mostly African American neighborhood. Their business is threatened by a megastore development being planned by a former NFL player, who isn't above twisting arms and greasing palms of city leaders to get his project approved. Archy's and Nat's wives, the very pregnant Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are also business partners--they are midwives, whose business is also threatened by loss of hospital privileges and a possible lawsuit. Meanwhile, Nat and Aviva's nerdy 15-year-old son Julius, who is just realizing he is gay, is enamored of a another boy, Titus Joyner, who it turns out is Archy's illegitimate son who Gwen knows nothing about. As if this weren't enough, Archy's dad, a star of 1970s blaxploitation films from whom Archy is estranged, is on the run from a variety of people with axes to grind. And there are more subplots and minor characters too numerous to describe.

Chabon's themes are important to me--what it means to be family, how people of different races can relate as friends, what a depressed community needs to flourish and who should get to decide, how popular culture reflects bigger ideas in society. His writing is often wonderfully over the top. But then he can also be too extreme. There are just too many characters and plot lines in Telegraph Avenue, and the writing sometimes  goes too far as well. One section is made up of one long--verrry long--sentence; while some reviewers have cited this mega-sentence as indicative of Chabon's skill, I see it more as a sympton of his inability to rein himself in.

I can't give Telegraph Avenue a glowing review, but I do  respect what Chabon has tried to do.

Favorite passages:
A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summertime Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.

He fought the armchair, resisting its invitation to conform his frame to its armature of grief. Grief was itself a kind of chair, wide and forgiving, that might enfold you softly in its wings and then devour you, keep you like a pocketful of loose change.

The merchandise was not the thing, and neither, for that matter, was the nostalgia. It was all about the neighborhood, that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion as the talk grew ever more scholarly and wild.

1 comment:

  1. I would also say the book requires a reader who enjoys intensely language driven writing as opposed to a focus on plot. I will admit for me the plot never really kicked in. I admire what Chabon did here in some respects but I can't say it's my favorite book of all time.