Michael Chabon is considered one of today’s great modern authors, he has a Pulitzer Prize for fiction on his shelf, and in Telegraph Avenue he has written another captivating book. Titled Telegraph Avenue, for the street of the same name that runs from North Oakland approximately four and a half miles to the University of California-Berkley, Chabon introduces a gamut of people whose lives in one way or another intersect with the address, specifically the address for a used vinyl store called Brokeland Records.
The owners of the store are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe.These two are truly an odd couple. Archy is a black man, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War who is awaiting anxiously the arrival of his first child from his very pregnant wife, while Nat is a white man who loves the jazz and beat music the store sells and who is known for being just a tad…grumpy. The two men are further connected by the fact that their wives, the very pregnant Gwen and Nat’s wife Aviva are partners in a midwifery practice.
As the story begins Nat and Archy have a problem. Brokeland Records, never overly successful in the first place, is facing competition from a proposed big box music store, a chain called Dogpile Records. Dogpile is owned by a man named Gibson Goode, a former NFL star quarterback and known as the fifth richest black man in America.
The duo’s struggles to stop their competition from getting off the ground would make for an interesting story. That storyline, however, is only a small portion of the many intersecting that make up this fantastic book. We also learn of a pending threat to the midwifery business due to a dispute with a physician at the hospital where the ladies have birthing privileges, learn about Archy’s no good father, a one time Blaxsploitation film star, meet a young man who is about to rock Archy’s world, a septuagenarian jazz musician with a parrot for a best friend,an ancient Chinese woman who once taught Bruce Lee Kung Fu, an undertaker who believes he is the neighborhood Godfather, and a young man named Julie who discovers that he is not the person he is expected to be.
I am not usually a big fan of relationship fiction. Chabon’s writing is very modern. If you are uncomfortable with current, raw, language as it pertains to race, drugs and sexuality this book might not be for you. Remember the neighborhood in question is rubbing shoulders with that leftist hot spot at the Berkley campus. That said this book should be in no way construed as holding a leftist slant. In the end the story comes down to relationships between friends, the loyalty of family, and the bedrock Conservative value of working through tough times to find a way to make things work.
Chabon is a glorious writer, a true craftsman with words. Even were one not inclined to read the book I would urge them to pick it up and read the short third chapter. The book, being five chapters, uses the third as an intermission of sorts. Using a writing style that can only be called Faulknerian, with one eleven page long sentence focused on the flight path of a parrot the author checks in on all of the novel’s major characters. It is easily the best sentence you will read in fiction in the next year or for that matter many years. That Chabon is writing about a melting pot neighborhood in North Oakland and Faulkner wrote about the segregated racial brewery of his fictional Yoknatatawpha county only adds to the irony of this incredible comparison of the talent with which both write.
Faulkner is a legend and Chabon while clearly one of the greatest writers of our time does not yet rank in his league. One does wonder however with another couple decades of writing if Mr. Chabon will mean as much to his time period as Faulkner did to his.
This is a wonderful book, one that has prompted me to add a few of Chabon’s older books to my reading list. My guess is that after you take a trip on Telegraph Avenue you too will want to acquaint yourself with much more of Chabon’s writing as well.