“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon / Harper Books, 480 pages
More than any modern novelist/magician, Michael Chabon takes you places. In his new novel “Telegraph Avenue”, you can taste food without eating it, and hear music without listening to it. Chabon is a stylistic chameleon who continues to push the envelope and take risks. In “Telegraph Avenue,” Chabon speaks through black and white families, record store employees, married couples, gay teenagers, blaxploitation stars, an African parrot, and Barack Obama with encyclopedic knowledge and grace.
“Telegraph Avenue” is the story of Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe: best friends, band mates, and co-owners of Brokeland Records. Others include their wives Gwen and Aviva, their children Titus and Julius, and the cast of characters that define Telegraph Avenue, on the Oakland/Berkeley border.
Brokeland Records has become a second home to Jazz and Soul lovers who want to talk shop, and occasionally purchase records. To Archy and Nat, it is home. The church of vinyl they created to escape broken families, and unsuccessful lives. When construction of a music megastore threatens to bankrupt Brokeland, the bonds of Archy and Nat’s friendship is tested. This also jeopardizes their marriages to Gwen and Aviva, midwives in legal limbo themselves, and unearths problems for Titus and Julius. Telegraph Avenue is home to generations of families who carry rumors and pass them along from father to son. Some of these rumors involve Archy’s father Luther Stallings, a faded blaxploitation star and a minor player in the not forgotten Black Panther era of Oakland, California.
Within this multi-family drama, Chabon constantly shifts styles, and continually thrills with his trademark prose and wordplay. When the story expands, and plot loses itself in description, Chabon catches you up with a 12-page, 4,000-word sentence from the eyes of a parrot flying around the city. Chabon instills every character with depth, and references that hint at glowing backstory. When you finish reading you are an expert at kung fu trivia, 70’s funk and soul, and you’ve met people who are real.
More than a novel, “Telegraph Avenue” is a history of race relations, and forgotten crimes that are real and imagined. It’s also a call to arms against homoginized culture. It’s a lot of books all at once, all of them telling you about parallel worlds that force you to think differently about your own. It’s filled with loving and corrupt souls, all wanting to find home. It’s about the sacrifices you have to make to keep home and hope alive. It’s a time capsule that may contain your last chance to walk inside a locally owned record store. Bury it for your kids.