Michael Chabon is a writer I love, but one who frustrates me. I’ve read most of his novels, and starting each book is always exciting, because Chabon has a gift for vividly creating his settings, inhabiting them with fascinating characters, and putting clever, jazzy dialogue in their mouths. But there has always been a problem: after he creates these vivid setups, the plots often fizzle. For me, the ending of a Chabon novel was never as good as the start, it was as if he lost interest in sealing the deal. Whether it was The Wonder Boys, or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, fine novels all, this reader got lost in a fabulous story but ultimately was left wanting more.
That’s what makes Telegraph Avenue my favorite Michael Chabon novel to date, as this time I think his plot is paced well and delivers on all questions that it raises. Chabon takes us to the California Bay Area, to a street on the borders of hipster Berkeley and workaday, beleaguered Oakland. His characters are two families, one African-American, one Jewish. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are longtime friends and co-owners of Brokeland Records, a neighborhood institution that is always on the verge of going under. Their wives Gwen Shanks (quite pregnant) and Aviva Roth-Jaffe run a midwife service. Both businesses are in trouble, and so are the relationships between both business partners and spouses. Archy is beset by a ne’er-do-well father with a history that connects both to martial arts movies and the Black Panthers. He’s also got a son from a former relationship, Titus, who has come to town, a boy who, unbeknownst to Archy, has become entangled with the Jaffe’s son Julie, a gay teen trying to sort out his sexuality.
This world of earth mothers, jazz records, jive talkers, and blaxploitation films is a great setting for Chabon to show off his verbal fire power, and the book is full of funny riffs, fizzy sentences, and pop culture references. The book’s themes are the costs of urban renewal, the challenges of maintaining relationships across different social classes and ethnic backgrounds, but most importantly, of how to balance the needs of self and family. It’s a potent combination that makes this book a happy challenge for the lover of contemporary literary fiction.
I listened to Telegraph Avenue on audiobook, where a fine reading by narrator Clarke Peters enhanced the book’s pleasures even further.
Check the WRL catalog for Telegraph Avenue
Or listen to it on audio CD