There’s a scene about halfway through Telegraph Avenue, the new novel from Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, told from the perspective of a parrot. The bird, released to the wild following the death of its owner, glides over the streets of Oakland, California, observing the novel’s characters during their various moments of crisis. It’s a bizarre and thrilling sequence, made only more so once the reader realizes that Chabon’s been presenting it in one uninterrupted sentence twelve pages in length.
It’s a bold move, the sort of display that would smack of desperation or ‘look at me!’ grammatical trickery in the hands of a less assured writer. Thankfully, in Chabon’s hands the scene never reads like he’s trying to bludgeon you over the head with his talent, he’s just having fun with words and language; he clearly loves writing and that joy he feels for it comes through on every page of the book.
Unlike Chabon’s previous two novels, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Telegraph Avenue is a smaller story, similar in size and scope to his sophomore novel Wonder Boys, a book I always considered my favourite of his works.
Until now. Telegraph Avenue is not only my favourite work by Chabon, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The year is 2004. Archy Stallings, part-time bassist and co-owner of Brokeland Records, a floundering vinyl store he shares with his bandmate and best friend Nat Jaffe, is attempting to prepare for oncoming fatherhood with little success: his wife Gwen is in danger of losing the midwifery practice she partners in with Nat’s wife Aviva; the store generates little traffic other than the old-timers and regulars who have been jawjacking around the counter since its days as a barber shop; and ex-N.F.L. player Gibson Goode plans to build one of his Dogpile superstores, complete with vintage vinyl floor, blocks from Brokeland’s door.
Further complicating matters is Archy's hustling father, a former Blaxploitation star plotting a comeback, and the sudden appearance of Titus Joyner, occasional lover of Nat and Aviva’s son Julius, and Archy’s barely-remembered son. His emergence threatens to shatter the barely sustained status quo Archy’s been struggling so hard to maintain.
A mere plot summary does the novel a disservice. It’s a tiny epic, Dickensian in the way supporting characters and subplots are peppered throughout, all with memorable tics and features even if they only show up for a page or two. The conversations on everything from doughnuts to the state of black music to race relations are sharp and pop with a Tarantino-like electricity [indeed, in an overt nod, Titus and Julius crash a seminar on Tarantino’s work and influences at the local community centre]. Chabon's skill at dropping insider references on everything from Japanese movie monsters to Detroit hip-hop groups to the lesser-known items found in the Creed Taylor Inc. back catalog is something to behold; catching them can make you feel like you're in on a secret handshake. But it's the characters that make the book. With the unfortunate exception of Nat [who doesn’t quite sink into the realm of the music snob cliché, but comes close], all are richly defined and three-dimensional, the sort of characters that have you reading the book slowly, just because you don’t want to have to say goodbye to them when it’s over.
Telegraph Avenue is a book about fathers and sons, the perils of nostalgia, the timeless healing properties of music and how it’s never too late to grow up. Fans of Chabon’s previous work, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, even George Eliot’s Middlemarch will find something to love in the novel.
Also, be sure to check out the website for the real Brokeland Records, a pop-up shop set up by HarperCollins in a local Oakland storefront. Kind of awesome.