Michael Chabon's new novel, TELEGRAPH AVENUE, should come with a CD, a playlist, or, more fittingly, a 78 RPM vinyl record with its soundtrack at the reader's fingertips. Chabon, in fact, cites a few music websites in the acknowledgments section of his book, but one gets the sense --- given the exuberance and depth with which he writes about the "soul-funk" at the novel's core --- that he pretty much was a fan of this genre before he ever set fingers to keyboard.
If music is at the center of the novel emotionally, then the record store called Brokeland is at its center geographically. Straddling the line between Berkeley and Oakland, California, the store is both the physical and spiritual center of the neighborhood. And, in a move that is somehow completely convincing despite its obvious thematic potential, Brokeland is owned and operated by two friends who also embody this neighborhood.
"Reading Chabon's prose can be both exhilarating and exhausting (in the best possible way). His sentences are so carefully crafted, so muscular in their vocabulary and metaphor, that readers can feel almost overwhelmed at times... But his prose and storytelling are also deeply compassionate..."
Archy is black, the son of a nearly-forgotten blaxploitation star from the ’70s. He and his wife, Gwen, are expecting their first child any day, but their household is far from a scene of domestic tranquility. Archy has been fooling around, and Gwen, a midwife, feels her business threatened by Berkeley's medical establishment. Archy's partner, Nat, is white and Jewish, the husband of Aviva, Gwen's mentor in midwifery, and the father of a teenage son who's exploring his sexuality with another boy, Titus, who (as it turns out) has his own connection with Archy.
Archy and Nat, in addition to their personal dilemmas, are on the cusp of a professional crisis. The year is 2004 (as we discover when a certain young senator from Illinois makes a cameo following his appearance at the DNC), and sales of vinyl records are slumping. Sure, Brokeland is a great neighborhood gathering place, but is that enough to make a business, especially when a new Thang megastore is about to open right down the street? For Nat and Archy, Brokeland has always been about the music, but when their livelihood is on the line, they must ask themselves what the store really represents --- to them and to the neighborhood.
Reading Chabon's prose can be both exhilarating and exhausting (in the best possible way). His sentences are so carefully crafted, so muscular in their vocabulary and metaphor, that readers can feel almost overwhelmed at times (as in the case of the nearly 12-page sentence that forms the entirety of section III). But his prose and storytelling are also deeply compassionate, both to the characters about whom he writes and to the Berkeley neighborhood he obviously knows and loves so well.
At the funeral that plays a central role in the novel's plot, Gwen, who is at this point somewhat of an observer on her own life, reflects as she listens to Carole King's "It's Too Late," which, as she learns, was the old man's theme song: "Gwen understood then that whatever it's ostensible subject or situation, ‘It's Too Late’ was about Cochise Jones…. The song was about the people gathered here who might never have had the chance to meet Mr. Jones, and those who might have spoken differently, said more, the last time they saw him, had they known. It was about Titus growing up with no father, and Aviva trying to hold on to her one and only baby, and the dream of Brokeland Records. It was about some large percentage of the aggregate wishes, plans, and ambitions espoused by the people gathered here today."
Whether or not it's too late for Chabon's characters, their relationships and dreams are, in large part, the focus of his novel --- and it all plays out against a soulful background that may inspire readers to dance, sing, laugh, and cry along to the music.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 13, 2012