Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

480 pp
(review copy from the publisher -- thank you; thanks also to Trish at TLC book tours)

Telegraph Avenue, to borrow a phrase from one of its characters, is for the most part "straight-up bangin'."  The book is  filled with an ongoing medley of pop culture incorporating  movies, music, and television of the past, offering its readers some  funny & insightful observations on parenting along with other thematic issues -- community,  nostalgia,  race & class, and the realities of the encroachment of big business and progress into the world of a city's neighborhood. It is definitely the characters who really drive this novel, which is good but often gets carried away in the prose.

The story centers around Brokeland Records, a store on Telegraph Avenue (a border between Oakland and Berkeley),  which one of the owners sees as a "church of vinyl."  The store is "nearly the last of its kind, Ishi, Chingachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon, " and used to be a neighborhood barbershop where for years people would hang out and shoot the breeze.  The Oakland side of the avenue has seen better times, especially the area about two blocks away from Brokeland at 41st and Telegraph. It is there where Gibson "G Bad" Goode, the "fifth richest black man in America,"  former pro quarterback, now head of Dogpile Recordings and Dogpile Films,  is planning to build his  "Thang," a
"ten-screen cineplex, a food court, a gaming arcade, and a twenty-unit retail galleria anchored by a three-story Dogpile media store, one floor each for music, video, and other (books mostly)," and would "carry a solid-general interest selection of media but specialize in African-American culture...," a "full selection of used and rare merchandise, such as vintage vinyl recordings of jazz, funk, blues and soul."
Gibson's megacomplex is a nightmare for Brokeland Records' owners Nat and Archy, who see the handwriting on the wall as the Thang's groundbreaking is scheduled to be begin in just a month's time.  Things are already bad for the pair.  They're behind on the store's rent, cash flow issues prevent them from acquiring  better inventory, and gloomy Nat  is reluctant to move forward with any of Archy's more modern ideas such as adding an espresso machine. He refuses to make any changes, as if he and Archy were "guardians of some ancient greatness that must never be tainted or altered."  Hope lodged in their local councilman, Chan Flowers ("a model of probity....a good dose of gangster to the hat to let you know the councilman played his politics old-school, with a shovel in the dark of the moon ... a touch of Tombstone, of Gothic western undertaker...") to block Goode's plans in the neighborhood seems to have now been misplaced, leading Nat to worry about having to sell his blood plasma, one of his greatest fears.  

But the fate of Brokeland isn't the only thing on their minds.  Archy is on the edge of fatherhood with very pregnant wife Gwen, but he's unprepared, negligent, and prone to playing around.  His father Luther (former blaxploitation/kung fu film star) has resurfaced after a long absence and to make matters even worse,  Archy finds himself with a teenage son named Titus he fathered some years ago.  Nat's got his own issues as well, namely his temper and his relationship with his son Julius, who just happens to be infatuated with Titus.  Gwen and Nat's wife Aviva are midwives with their own practice,  and it isn't long before they have a serious mishap with one of their clients, the result of which ultimately may  threaten to break up their partnership.  On top of all of this craziness, someone is looking for Luther, involving Archy in his father's life, a place he does not want to be. 

Telegraph Avenue hits the nostalgia theme hard, epitomized in the neighborhood record store,  a place "full of time-wasting, senseless, lying, boastful male conversation for going on sixty years, at least."   Even the future site of the hated Dogpile Thang has poignant memories for Archy, the site of the Golden State Market where as a kid, he used to steal "all kinds of tasty and desirable items."  As he walks the avenue, "...tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat,"  he makes his way to Neldam's bakery, another business "slated to close its doors,"  where
"The cakes and cookies ... were not first-rate, but they had an old-fashioned sincerity, a humble brand of fabulousness, that touched Archy in this time where everything good in life was either synthesized in transgenic cyborg vats or shade-grown in small batches by a Buddhist collective of blind ex-Carmelite Wiccans."
But ultimately, as Archy and the other characters discover, life does go on -- with some accommodations.

There are a number of things to like about Telegraph Avenue, but what really stands out here are the characters,  from Archy to an attorney who only takes on whales as a client, or a Berkeley woman planning to give birth on top of a shower curtain covered with Frida Kahlo’s face.  I’ll admit that although I  had some qualms about a white man giving voice to African-American people in his novel, Chabon handles everything so well in this area that sometimes I couldn't tell who was black and who wasn't.  One of my favorite pieces in this book was the secret history involving Pullman porters -- very well done.   

My main issue, and really my only major problem with the book  is that   I just don’t get why the author feels that he has to be oh so clever here in terms of writing.  There are a number of places in this novel where a single sentence can go off on so many tangents that you have to go back to the beginning of it to recapture the main thrust.  Not only is this incredibly frustrating at times, some times it got boring, and I found myself wanting to skim, never a good thing.  At the same time, I actually liked the chapter where a bird’s-eye-view encompassed everything that was happening with all of the characters all at once in a single sentence that lasts for several pages.  That part was written extremely well, which I found amazing, because I’m normally not a stream-of-consciousness kind of person.    So, from a casual reader’s perspective, I'm sort of torn in my reaction to this book.  It  can get windy (with a long i) and overly wordy, suffering sometimes from overactive and overstated prose. At the same time, that very writing is what created the amazing characters  and some really funny and poignant scenes, for example, a funeral where  the deceased is buried in an Aztec-themed jumpsuit with a lesbian marching band also dressed in jumpsuits, walking down the avenue playing hymns.   

Not everyone is going to love this book, but overall,  I liked it, and would recommend it  to very patient readers who don’t mind a lot of overstated prose in places. There is definitely a buzz that permeates this book -- often making me laugh, keeping my interest at a high level wanting to know how the Brokeland community was going to fare.

Many thanks to Trish at TLC book tours; you can find the rest of Telegraph Avenue’s tour stops here.


  1. Hi Nancy,

    Nice review. You said what I thought - but clearly your comments are much more lucid than my thinking process! Cheers,


    1. Thank you. It's not that I'm so lucid, but it's hard for me to truncate myself sometimes. LOL

  2. Sadly, this book was a DNF for me -- my first Chabon -- but it just didn't work. I was initially enamored of his writing style, but it got very tiresome, and I just loathed all the characters (and found them indistinct, overly quirky, exaggerated but flat) -- in general, I'm feeling super grinchy about this book. :/

    1. A lot of people felt that way, so no sorry required! I didn't like the character of Gwen or Luther's girlfriend; and I wasn't so in love with the writing everywhere. But I got invested in the story of the neighborhood store vs mega business so I had to get through it. I'm pretty big on nostalgia, too. I gave it 3.75 stars on goodreads and that seemed to be pretty much the average star rating. And it made me laugh, because I've been in Berkeley many, many times and I so recognized the types of people he wrote about. I remember thinking "and people think SoCal people are weird!"

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.

  4. I'm also on the tour ( and also enjoyed the book. The 12 page sentence was a strange one but, I thought, genius!

    1. Yeah, I'm not normally a stream-of-consciousness type person (that probably keeps Joyce's novels off my reading list but that's fine by me), but those 12 pages were really executed well.


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.