I have an on-again/off-again relationship with Michael Chabon. His Pulitzer winner, Kavalier and Clay was an overall marvel (even though I thought it sagged somewhat in the middle. Then The Yiddish Policeman’s Union took my heart. Then Gentlemen of the Road did not. There are other examples, but you get the idea. Now we have Telegraph Avenue, and I have to explain a couple of things.
Most people won’t have this problem, but I’ve lived in Berkeley/Oakland for over a half century. To me, the words “Telegraph Avenue” connote the four blocks or so between Dwight Way and the Cal campus. That’s where the various wars over free speech, the Vietnam War, and various other tumults raged through the decades, and it’s still an active hippie/homeless/street vendor/protest scene.
Now, Telegraph is a long street, stretching probably 4-5 miles from the campus to downtown Oakland. Along its route, are a number of neighborhoods and centers, all with their own identities, like Temescal, where this novel more or less focuses, but none, I think, is primarily associated in the public mind with “Telegraph Avenue,” even though they’re located thereon. The street name is secondary to the district name. I read reviews which spoke of a used record store, and there are several of those in that aforementioned 4-blocks, so when I opened the book and found myself located at an area somewhere in the north-Oakland/South Berkeley zone, it took a while to get myself oriented. Not a good start.
Anyway, getting all that out of the way, what about the book itself? It’s a tale of heartless capitalism preying on small businesses. It’s a story of selfless individuals pitted against the forces of corporate dominance and government regulation. It’s also a story of the history and ethos of the social and political wars of the 20th century and their aftermath carried out with their own special bay area flavor.
Archy(black) and Nat (white) own the record store “Brokeland,” whose existence is threatened by an imminent supercomplex coming to the neighborhood. Their wives, Gwen (pregnant/1/2 white/Archy) and Aviva (white/Nat) are trained midwives, operating as a team outside the medical establishment by promoting and practicing home birth. There are a couple of ten-year-old sons, one long-lost and unacknowledged (Archy’s), the other with a tendency toward the gay side (Nat’s). Capping off the family dynamics is Archy’s estranged father, Luther, a druggie, former Black Panther, and Blaxsploitation actor with a big secret. That’s the central cast. There are others, of course. For this plot you need a ruthless capitalist, a corrupt city councilman, and a number of others to make the scenario work. However, given all that, it’s the interplay among the record store owners and their families that’s the nexus of all.
Generally the story works well, the characters often wonderfully involving—Gwen, my favorite—and we get some glorious scenes (Archy’s eulogy speech, for example), particularly in the last third. Before that, things tend to move in fits and starts, largely because Chabon gets bogged down in presenting his encyclopedic knowledge of old music, film and artists and enraptured with describing them. We get long catalogues of recordings (Kulu sé Mama, Impulse!, 1967; On the Corner, Columbia, 1972, etc.) and descriptions of actors and performances only the most devoted fan of 1970’s movies and music would know. A few such references for effect would have been enough, after that, as a mentor of mine put it, your research is showing, and the references have the effect of lists, speed bumps that interrupt rather than move the story. Plus, we never get a sense that the action is really anchored around Telegraph Avenue or characterized by its ethos. I will say that it’s the first book that’s treated me to a ride in a blimp or to join in the de-tethering of one. And I reiterate the beautiful writing in a host of scenes.
Still, it’s four stars. A more disciplined blue pencil would have earned it a fifth, that and another title? Brokeland would have served well.