Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue
by Michael Chabon

I wonder if I would have loved Telegraph Avenue more if I'd read it before I read Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. Unfortunately for all books read during (likely) the rest of this year, Beautiful Ruins has become the one against all other books are measured. Michael Chabon is one of my favorite writers — and his Mysteries of Pittsburgh is my favorite book — but I only liked his latest release. Telegraph Avenue is very good but I didn't fall in love. Like I said, is my reading colored by an Italian-gold haze? I'm not sure.

On the surface, Chabon's novel is everything I love — a record shop, dinosaur-like personalities clinging to retro things, love, complicated relationships, the Bay Area. I would love to flip through the dusty bins at Brokeland Records and eavesdrop on Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe shooting the shit with regular customers and friends. One of them, Cochise Jones, even has a talking African Grey parrot named Fifty-Eight, who is prone to saying things like, "Say hello, you little jive-ass motherfucker."

Archy and Nat are enduring a series of problems — not the least of which is Gibson Goode:

Six months prior to this morning, at a press conference with the mayor at his side, Gibson "G Bad" Goode, former All-Pro quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, president and chairman of Dogpile Recordings, Dogpile Films, head of the Goode Foundation, and the fifth richest black man in America, had flown up to Oakland in a customized black and red airship, brimming over with plans to open a second Dogpile "Thang" on the long-abandoned Telegraph Avenue site of the old Golden State market, two blocks south of Brokeland Records. […] Unstated during the press conference, though inferrable from the way things worked at the L.A. Thang, were the intentions of the media store not only to sell CDs at a deep discount but also to carry a full selection of rare and used merchandise, such as vintage vinyl recordings of jazz, funk, blues and soul.

Meanwhile, Nat and Archy's wives, Aviva and Gwen, are going through problems of their own with their midwifery. After a complicated home birth leads to a hospital and a doctor who is exceptionally rude to Gwen, they possibly face losing their privileges at one of the few hospitals open to midwives who also do home births. Additionally, Gwen is very, very pregnant and very, very pissed at Archy's non-committal behavior lately.

Also, Nat and Aviva's teenage son, Julius — aka Julie — has a secret of his own. He's been seeing a boy named Titus — who is more than likely Archy's son. Titus isn't normally into dudes, but he likes Julie well enough to accept "every last note and coin of Julie's virginity over the past two weeks."

There was no good reason to lie; on some level, Julie knew that. His parents had to figure-slash-understand that Julie was semi-bicurious or maybe even gay, or what have you. Twenty-five minutes to gay o'clock. But the confession felt like too much work; Titus was too hard to explain.

Amidst all this is Archy's estranged relationship with his own father, Luther Stallings, a former kung-fu blaxploitation star. Something about his old business dealings have to do with the Gibson Goode Thang, and despite his best efforts, Archy's about to be drawn into his father's plans.

So, yes, Michael Chabon has quite the epic on his hands, divided into five sections pictured as Side A on the cover art. The story is all music and passion and making yourself do the things that are scary. What I really love about his writing is the way in which he describes things. He finds the words that seem original, yet the only natural way to describe the moment in question. "Twenty-five minutes to gay o'clock," being a prime example. Sure, like many writers, he may have heard and lifted the line from somewhere else along the way, but it reads like his.

I also appreciate his continued efforts to have not-straight male characters. Showing the moments where a teenager is trying to figure out his sexuality in a very real (and not overly dramatic, anguished) way is especially good. The grey area between straight and gay is far too underrepresented in most fiction, and this is a rather diverse novel, in terms of race, religion, and economic standing, but it isn't all pleased with itself for doing so. The characters are well aware of the awkward and difficult questions of privilege.

Also impressive is Section III: "A Bird of Wide Experience," an eleven page single sentence that is neither gimmicky nor impenetrable. When I finished it, I thought, "Now that took some doin'."

So why didn't I fall in love? I'm not sure, other than I didn't feel all that connected to the characters or the story until around the halfway mark. I was interested enough to keep going, of course, and it's not as though anyone was unlikeable (their flaws, I understood), but... Well, for whatever reason, the hook wasn't there. And in a long book, over 200 pages of semi-ambivalence is... a lot of reading, and the story is a bit over-stuffed. I spent that time hoping, to crib a musical phrase, the thrill wasn't gone.

Still, it starts to come together, and how everyone imperfectly resolves their issues is neither predictable nor easy. I did enjoy Telegraph Avenue — I just wish I enjoyed it more. I wanted to able to say I'd hug this book's face off, but in Sara-praise, "That took some doin'" is nothing faint, either.

Of course, I'm still going to eagerly anticipate every new Michael Chabon release, and I own nearly all his books. I will continue to recommend my favorites of his until the end of my time. When it comes to Telegraph Avenue, however, you will just have to take what I've said here, consider your own tastes, and decide from there. Maybe you will be the one who falls in love.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as an advanced review copy from HarperCollins, so my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished version. 


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Yes, I'm just going to keep soldiering on.


  1. Good one, Sara. I like your standards, and asking more from a writer you like than "... over 200 pages of semi-ambivalence..."