Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 465 pp
Michael Chabon makes me a happy reader. When I finish one of his novels, I know I have been worked over, played with, and challenged. With Telegraph Avenue he has done it to me again.
How did he work me over? With a convoluted plot for one thing. As usual I was fairly lost and confused for the first 60 pages. He is busy introducing characters, setting scenes, jumping into the past, and I'm just trying to keep up. It is like hiking with an experienced, fit, onward! type in an unfamiliar location.
Though a protagonist does emerge and is in fact introduced on page one (Archy Stallings, part owner of the failing Brokeland Records, a black veteran of Desert Storm who has yet to mature), I spent the entire book thinking there were six main characters whose lives are intertwined just as in real life. You may be the protagonist of your own life but without at least five other key people, your life would be inexplicable.
How was I played with? He made me wade through the minutia of universes with which I am partially or wholly unfamiliar, but he made me like it. (He always does this: comic books and superheros in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; an alternate history of Jews, gangsters and natives in Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman's Union.) This time it is 1970s jazz and soul plus Blaxploitation martial arts cinema and modern midwifery mixed with the history of the borderline between Oakland and Berkeley.
Pulsing along beneath the surface like a rhythm section are Chabon's usual themes: Love-hetero, homo, parental, and between same sex friends. Multicultural clash and blending with a strong Jewish flavor. Fatherhood-what does it mean, how is it ever done right, what does it have to do with manhood? Last but not least, the mystery of females-their ferocity, their needs, their hormones, their destinies.
Words, words, words. I happen to love smart Jewish males showing off. Details, lovingly and lengthily described, tossed out into cul de sacs which do not further the plot. Chabon can turn the world into a combination shopping mall/museum. But the plot keeps moving inexorably to a finale.
Telegraph Avenue takes place over just a few weeks. Archy's wife is about to give birth, Brokeland Records about to go under, deep old social, racial, and personal wounds coming back to haunt these two families who are pretty much the salt of the earth when it comes to their neighborhood. They are challenged, they each come close to complete failure. I was challenged to live outside of my life, wondering all the while how on earth life just keeps on.
(Telegraph Avenue is available right now in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in other formats by order.)