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TBTS Reviews: Telegraph Avenue

September 11, 2012

Michael Chabon has returned home. His last novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, took us to an alternate-history Alaska given to the survivors of the 1948 collapse of the newborn state of Israel. Before that, he reached back a thousand years to the Khazar Empire, a half-legendary Jewish kingdom in the Crimean Peninsula, in Gentlemen of the Road, and in that book’s afterword explained why he departed from contemporary realistic fiction: after years writing about the same things as everybody else, he wanted a little adventure. It’s not hard to imagine an alternate-universe version of Chabon in which he takes the Neil Gaiman route, constructing dazzling fantasy and being praised for transcending his genre. But in this universe, those commonplace themes – love, family, fatherhood, friendship – matter too much to Chabon for him to stay away for good, and so Michael Chabon has returned home to recent-past California, to Telegraph Avenue right on the borderland between Berkeley and Oakland, to a record shop named for that fuzzy boundary, Brokeland, and the lives and loves and families of the two men who run it.

One thing Chabon brought back with him from his literary walkabout was a taste for the epic. Ever since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon has been nothing if not ambitious. Kavalier & Clay was a sprawling magnificent beast of a book, six hundred pages and change. Telegraph Avenue may not have quite the thickness, but it feels no less an epic for all that, a window on two families having the kind of year after which nothing is the same. The men, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, one white, one black, best of friends and business partners, have operated their decreasingly profitable record store. Now it’s the dawn of the iPod age, and if that weren’t bad enough, a deep-pocketed billionaire and former NFL quarterback Gibson Goode wants to build a massive entertainment complex right in the neighborhood, with everything up to and including a used-vinyl department. (And as an aside to anyone who has worked in the kind of business where you routinely hear “I’ll just get it on Amazon,” Michael Chabon clearly sympathizes.) Meanwhile, their wives, Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks, themselves partners in a well-established midwife practice, are suddenly on the receiving end of a malpractice claim and facing the loss of hospital privileges after a birth goes wrong, even as the due date for Gwen and Archy’s long-delayed first child nears. And Nat’s son Julius is in love with another boy, Titus Joyner, who is Archy’s long-estranged unacknowledged son from a brief relationship before his marriage to Gwen. And on top of that, Archy’s own father, fallen blaxploitation kung-fu legend (!) Luther Stallings, has resurfaced, looking for money and perhaps something else, something related to a thirty-year-old secret from the Black Panther years. It’s an ambitious setup for a story that is well-supported throughout with a wide array of characters and a sense of real history among the players – probably Chabon’s best cast since Wonder Boys.

There are a number of reasons a writer might find his way back to familiar ground. Years of failed experimentation, for instance, or a desperate try to recapture the formula that once led to success, or simply an inability to think of anything better. Telegraph Avenue is unmistakably not a product of any of those things. It is instead an experienced writer going back to see if he can do what he always wanted, and repeatedly – joyously – discovering that yes, in fact, he can. And then some. I could choose a lot of words to describe Michael Chabon’s return, but I settled on one a while back: triumphant.

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