Bottom Line: It requires patience and concentration to enjoy but is definitely worth the effort.
“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.”
Thoughts: Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, captures life in a small stretch of Oakland, California – a neighborhood in transition, struggling to adjust to changing economies and competition from its more affluent neighbors. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, in their capacity as storeowners of Brokeland Records, Telegraph Avenue’s resident institution cum gathering place, battle for their store’s, and, ultimately, their neighborhood’s survival against the threat of a big box competitor. At the same time as they seek to rally the long-time residents, their wives and their sons are undergoing their own personal crises. Aviva struggles to maintain her professional standing, while Gwen labors to redefine herself against the hormonal rages of her advanced pregnancy, her growing dissatisfaction at her chosen career path, and her feckless husband. Meanwhile, Titus fights against his need for family and safety and his disgust and rage at the abandonment he feels towards his birth father, while Julie looks for a sense of belonging and love. As the backdrop against their personal dramas lies Telegraph Avenue, a neighborhood bound together by race, established relationships, an entrenched love of jazz, and a profound sense of community.
The eclectic characters in Telegraph Avenue are thoroughly enjoyable. Nat and Archy’s, as well as Aviva and Gwen’s, friendships cross the racial and economic divide and create a beautiful sense of hope that our world is truly becoming colorblind in its interactions. The entire cast is larger than life with their imposing demeanor and enormous personalities. Anger, hope, love, and every other emotion roll off of each character in almost visible waves, and their immense sense of personal identity is striking in their certainty. They know who they are, are comfortable in their own skin, and are not willing to change that for anyone or anything. It is tremendously satisfying to read about characters who are so sure of themselves, even as they grapple to reassess that sense of identity in the aftermath of certain events.
What sets Telegraph Avenue apart from other works of fiction is its prose. Lyrical in nature, it tends towards the grandiose, bordering on loquacious. Yet, because of, and not in spite of, his verbosity, Mr. Chabon captures the stark beauty of the decaying neighborhood in a way that would be virtually impossible had he kept his descriptions shorter and less poetic. Even better, from its stream-of-consciousness transitions to the rambling dialogue, it encapsulates the jazz that is such a huge part of Telegraph Avenue’s identity as well as Archy’s and Nat’s livelihood. It is a gorgeous use of syntax that sets the tone for the entire novel.
Telegraph Avenue is a sprawling, verbose glimpse into the ordinary struggles of two families and the events that occur in their ever-evolving urban neighborhood. Given its imposing cast of characters, effusive narration, and complex interactions, it can be an intimidating and frustrating piece of fiction. Yet, to readers who take the time and effort required to get through the novel, the story is a rewarding experience in the style of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Each character, no matter how trivial, adds a layer of realistic complexity to the story of a community trying to survive in a world of suburban development and the ubiquitous chain storm invasion. Simple and poignant, Telegraph Avenue reemphasizes the meaning and importance of family as well as neighborhood identity and survival.