Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for his spectacular 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon has gone on to write a diverse array of books restrained by neither style nor genre. Of the distinctive qualities to be found within whatever form his versatile storytelling may take is a prose marked by eloquence and vivaciousness, an uncanny ability to immerse his readers within the lives of his characters, and a narrative structure propelled mainly by his imaginative plots. All of these strengths are on full display in Telegraph Avenue, Chabon's resonant new novel and his most mature, accessible fiction to date.
Its genesis an unproduced television pilot he wrote over a decade ago, Telegraph Avenue is an engrossing, well-crafted drama of family and friendship. Set during the summer of 2004 in both Oakland and Berkeley (where Chabon himself has resided for the last 15 years), the novel focuses on the intertwined lives and ensuing hardships of two East Bay families. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are best friends and coproprietors of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl record shop whose continued existence is threatened by plans for a nearby megastore helmed by a wealthy, former NFL quarterback. Their spouses, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are popular midwives, but both their friendship and their livelihoods become jeopardized following a delivery that quite nearly turns tragic.
As with much of Chabon's fiction, a rich cast of supporting characters and interwoven subplots lend the novel a vibrant breadth. Julius, Nat, and Aviva's 14-year-old boy, an ardent film enthusiast, falls in love with Titus, Archy's long-unacknowledged teenaged son. Luther, Archy's father, is a former kung fu and blaxploitation movie star whose delinquent past and scheming present ensnares the lives of everyone close to him. When community members rally against the proposed megastore, friendships are tested, motivations are questioned, and allegiances are revealed.
Telegraph Avenue, perhaps Chabon's strongest and most complete effort to date, is a sonorous, sweeping portrait of a contemporary American neighborhood (inspired, somewhat, by his own childhood spent partially in Columbia, Maryland — a planned community that sought to eliminate the racial and economical divisions that stunt so many modern metropolises). Chabon's incorporation of a racial element into this novel (of the four leading characters, two are black and the others white), in addition to being a brave decision, serves not as the banal, forced multiculturalism and feel-good liberalism that would likely have come across as mere stereotype in less-adept hands, but instead as a perceptive, faithful portrayal of life in the 21st-century American city. Chabon's compassion and sympathy for his subjects translates into lifelike, relatable characters that struggle with many of the same adversities, frustrated aspirations, and need for perseverance as anyone in the real world.
Throughout Telegraph Avenue, Chabon makes clever, playful use of jazz, soul, and vinyl-related imagery and metaphor, beginning with the touching dedication to his wife. Many of the thematic elements that have so distinguished Chabon's previous works are conveyed anew and will be warmly familiar to his longtime readers. Peppered throughout the novel like a recurrent bass groove are moments of delightfully unexpected and potent humor that act as a welcome complement to its rhythm of crescendoing drama. Michael Chabon's storytelling gifts seem to know no bounds, and the dexterity with which he crafts his beautiful prose is often breathtaking. The book's third chapter, composed of a single, 12-page sentence, is magnificently rendered and acts as a testament to Chabon's remarkable literary prowess. Telegraph Avenue is indeed an exceptional novel, one demonstrative of the considerable talent Chabon brings to nearly everything he composes. Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
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, two 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 complication 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.
An intimate epic, a NorCal Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz and pulsing with a virtuosic, pyrotechnical style all its own, Telegraph Avenue is the great American novel we've been waiting for. Generous, imaginative, funny, moving, thrilling, humane, triumphant, it is Michael Chabon's most dazzling book yet.
"Virtuosity' is the word most commonly associated with Chabon, and if Telegraph Avenue, the latest from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yiddish Policeman's Union, is at first glance less conceptual than its predecessors, the sentences are no less remarkable. Set during the Bush/Kerry election, in Chabon's home of Berkeley, Calif., it follows the flagging fortunes of Brokeland Records, a vintage record store on the titular block run by Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, currently threatened with closure by Pittsburgh Steeler's quarterback-turned-entrepreneur Gibson 'G Bad' Goode's plans to 'restore, at a stroke, the commercial heart of a black neighborhood' with one of his Dogpile 'Thang' emporiums. The community mobilizes and confronts this challenge to the relative racial harmony enjoyed by the white Jaffe; his gay Tarantino-enthusiast son, Julie; and the African-American Archy, whose partner, Gwen Shanks, is not only pregnant but finds the midwife business she runs with Aviva, Jaffe's wife, in legal trouble following a botched delivery. Making matters worse is Stallings's father, Luther, a faded blaxploitation movie star with a Black Panther past, and the appearance of Titus, the son Archy didn't know he had. All the elements of a socially progressive contemporary novel are in place, but Chabon's preference for retro — the reader is seldom a page away from a reference to Marvel comics, kung fu movies, or a coveted piece of '70s vinyl — quickly wears out its welcome. Worse, Chabon's approach to race is surprisingly short on nuance and marred by a goofy cameo from a certain charismatic senator from Illinois. 15-city author tour. Agent: Mary Evans. (Sept. 11)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"If any novelist can pack the entire American zeitgeist into 500 pages, it's Chabon....Ambitious, densely written, sometimes very funny, and fabulously over the top, here's a rare book that really could be the great American novel."
Library Journal (starred review)
"An exhilarating, bighearted novel." O magazine
New York Times bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon has transported readers to wonderful places: to New York City during the Golden Age of comic books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay); to an imaginary Jewish homeland in Sitka, Alaska (The Yiddish Policemen's Union); to discover The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Now he takes us to Telegraph Avenue in a big-hearted and exhilarating novel that explores the profoundly intertwined lives of two Oakland, California families, one black and one white. In Telegraph Avenue, Chabon lovingly creates a world grounded in pop culture — Kung Fu, '70s Blaxploitation films, vinyl LPs, jazz and soul music — and delivers a bravura epic of friendship, race, and secret histories.
About the Author
Michael Chabon is the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Summerland (a novel for children), The Final Solution, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and Gentlemen of the Road; as well as the short story collections A Model World and Werewolves in Their Youth; and the essay collections Maps and Legends and Manhood for Amateurs. He is the Chairman of the Board of the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.