Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Published: September 10, 2013
3 out of 5
Book Summary: As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.
When ex–NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complications to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.
My Thoughts: I looked forward to this book having enjoyed a few of Michael Chabon’s other books but, this book was just okay for me. Fortunately, I found more reasons to continue reading this book than to put it down for good, although I came close to giving up on it several times. The characters in Telegraph Avenue are largely responsible for keeping me reading the book. Archy Stallings is one of the main characters in this book and a charming albeit complex and flawed man. Raised in Oakland, CA, he owns Brokeland Records with his best friend, Nat Jaffe. Brokeland Records used to be an old-fashioned barber shop. The kind were men gather in the afternoon to chat and read the papers. Much of the former barbershops clientele hangs out at Brokelend Records, still, giving the store a traditional air. Recently, there's been a change in the air at Brokeland Records. There’s a feeling of melancholy in the air of the shop now because Gibson Goode, a former NFL star, is rumored to be opening a large mall just down the street, the main attraction being a large music store that will also be selling vinyl. So Archy and Nate are out of sorts at the moment and trying to figure out what to do.
Archy has more troubling things on his mind at the moment. He'd rather just hang out at the shop which is causing him to shirk his responsibilities elsewhere. Archy's father, Luther Stallings, is harassing him for money, a common enough occurrence. One of the major themes of Telegraph Avenue is parenthood/parenting. Archy is currently coping with several different issues that involve being a father, in addition to his father's harassment. He has a poor relationship with his father was a prevalent drug and alcohol addict in the ‘70s when he was a Blaxploitation star. Now he’s clean and looking to make a comeback for which he needs Archy’s help. Archy doesn’t respect Luther and wants nothing to do with him. Archy relies on the advice of Cochise Jones, a colorful and eccentric, elderly organ player who walks around with a parrot, Fifty-eight, on his shoulder. Mr. Jones has been a surrogate father of sorts to Archy for years and knows him quite well.
In the opening pages of Telegraph Avenue we learn just how conflicted Archy is about fatherhood and being a father himself. We also get an idea of just how flawed a human being he is when we learn that Archy’s been cheating on his wife, Gwen. Gwen is a thoughtful, intelligent, open-minded woman who I found easy to like, as many do, and the more I got to know Gwen, the more I respected her for her values and morals. What’s so troubling about Archy’s cheating is that Gwen is pregnant with their first child. His behavior forces Gwen to kick him out of their house, hopefully temporarily. Archy isn’t sure he wants to be a father and in the guise of a younger man, he acts out his confusion. Archy’s behavior appears all the more ironic when Cochise Jones informs Archy his illegitimate 14-year old son Titus, is living in Oakland. Archy’s behavior is disappointing, but not surprising, when he takes a long time to warm up to Titus and treat him as his son.
There’s quite a lot going on in this novel, all of it interesting. Chabon peppers the story with a lot of humor and wit to keep a plot that could easily become dark and heavy a bit lighter. Themes such as race and racism, capitalism, tradition, gentrification and family life weave there way throughout the narrative but often, the story’s pace is sluggish because of the writing. Chabon’s writing is dense and the language cumbersome. At one point in the book a sentence goes on for several pages, filled with complicated text. Metaphors are used to describe characters, modes of dress, buildings and vistas, often making it difficult to ascertain what Chabon is talking about. When Archy and Nat are first introduced it took a quarter of the book for me to understand which character was African American and which one was Caucasian. I was frustrated by the writing. Had the use of metaphor or heavy words, used multiple times in a row, occurred only occasionally, I could have coped with it. But sometimes this kind of writing, like the passage below, went on for pages.
“Damn right,” said the man they were escorting from the hall, and as they came nearer, Mr. Nostalgia saw that it really was him. Thirty years too old, twenty pounds too light, forty watts too dim, maybe: but him. Red tracksuit a size too small, baring his ankles and wrists. Jacket waistband riding up in back under a screened logo in yellow, a pair of upraised fists circled by the words BRUCE LEE INSTITUTE, OAKLAND, CA. Long and broad-shouldered with that spring in his gait, coiling and uncoiling. Making a show of dignity that struck Mr. Nostalgia as poignant if not successful. Everybody staring at the guy, all the men with potbellies and back hair and doughy white faces, heads balding, Autumn leaves falling in their hearts. Looking up from the bins full of back issues of Inside Sports, the framed Terrible Towels with their bronze plaques identifying the nubbly signature in black Sharpie on yellow terrycloth as that of Rocky Bleier or Lynn Swann. Lifting their heads from the tables ranged with rookie cards of their youthful idols (Pete Maravich, Robin Yount, Bobby Orr) with canceled checks drawn on long-vanished bank accounts of Ted Williams or Joe Namath, unopened cello packs of ’71 Topps baseball cards, their fragile black borders pristine as memory, and of ’86 Fleer basketball cards, everyone holding a potential rookie Jordan. Watching this big gray-haired black man they half-remembered, a face out of their youth, get the bum’s rush. That’s the dude from the signing line. Was talking to Gibson Goode, got kind of loud. Hey, yeah, that’s what’s-his-face. Give him credit, the poor bastard managed to keep his chin up. The chin – him, all right – with the Kirk Douglas dimple. The light eyes. The hands, Jesus, like two up-rooted trees.
I wouldn’t recommend this book by Michael Chabon to too many people. He’s written several other books, such as The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys which I would highly recommend to other readers.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for a copy of Telegraph Avenue and the chance to read and review this book.