It’s the summer of 2004, and Brokeland Records owners Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings are fighting to keep their little corner of Oakland alive. Ex-NFL star Gibson Goode has just announced plans to open one of his Dogpile megastores in the area, which would effectively shut down Nat and Archy’s already-struggling business. With their livelihood, their close-knit neighborhood, and the sacredness of their carefully-selected used vinyl on the line, Nat and Archy refuse to go down without a fight.
Meanwhile, their wives are waging a battle of their own. Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks are the women behind Berkeley Birth Partners. Aviva has a reputation as “the Alice Waters of midwives,” and there is no one whose instinct she trusts more than Gwen’s. They’ve delivered over a thousand babies, but when one of their deliveries goes wrong, the find themselves fighting the smug staff at the hospital in a power struggle that quickly turns ugly. Their hospital access is in danger of being revoked.
There’s quite a list of characters — and sub-plots — in Telegraph Avenue. Nat and Aviva’s teenage son, Julius, is exploring his sexuality with none other than Archy’s son, Titus (who “isn’t gay” but humors Julie anyway). Titus has been shuffled along between Texas and California following his mother’s death; he hasn’t been a part of Archy’s life at all (Gwen doesn’t know about Titus). As a matter of fact, Archy doesn’t even know Titus is living in the same town. Both of the boys are film nerds and adore watching Archy’s estranged father, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings.
If that’s a lot to wrap your head around, that’s because…it is. Having read — and positively adored — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I dipped into Chabon’s latest book half expecting to encounter that “Chabon hump” at the beginning of the book, a hump that would be well worth the payoff once I got over it (while I was reading the book, several people I spoke to about the Telegraph Avenue hump confirmed, “that’s Chabon”). What I wasn’t expecting was that hump to span the entire first half of the book. It’s a lot to take in: constant shifts in era and point of view, handfuls of characters with their own back story, and Chabon’s penchant for flowery prose (so flowery, in fact, that one section consists solely of a twelve page sentence).
Is it impressive? Yes. Nat and Archy’s love of vinyl provides the soundtrack for a book about loyalty, friendship, and family bonds that is set in the larger context of racial tension and gentrification. But is it necessary? While there is a definite beauty and humor to this book, I think could have been edited down by about a third — at least a third — and still retained its essence. Some of male escapades were too goofballish for my tastes, and some of the race stuff was a little off. Reading this book takes some trust and some work, the kind of work that just wouldn’t have enough payoff for a lot of people. I would Telegraph Avenue to Chabon fans who already have an idea of what they’re getting themselves into, but if you’re a Chabon newbie: heads up.
Telegraph Avenue was released on September 11, 2012 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.