Sunday, January 27, 2013

Michael Chabon creates a rich Oakland history.

I love Michael Chabon’s novels, and I got this latest as soon as it was out.

Telegraph Avenue

Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue (468 pages, Harper, $27.99), tells the story of the painful and inevitable demise of a used record emporium on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.  The feckless owners and managers of the store, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, Jewish and Black respectively, have a long standing friendship and a very deep love of recherché vinyl recordings of musical greats of jazz and rock.  The store is located just over the border from Berkeley, and the ethos of the novel is richly imbued with an East Bay understanding of what matters in the world.

Like the barbershop of black neighborhoods, Brokeland Records, is a gathering place of a group of eccentrics that Chabon creates with love and respect.  In addition to the two owners, who are eccentric enough, there are various familiar-seeming types.  The local politico, the aging dandy who sports a parrot, other broken but fascinating men: all come alive.  But perhaps they seem so familiar because Chabon has invoked them so effortlessly.  Every conversation dances on the page.

Archy and Nat have wives Gwen and Aviva, and these women, both legendary midwives, are central characters as well.  In fact their scenes around birth and birth crises and in the local hospitals are some of the best in the book.  Gwen is pregnant with what she thinks will be Archy’s first child, but when a long lost son Titus arrives from somewhere back east, she is thrown for a loop, and so is Archy.  But Nat and Aviva’s son Julius who is just discovering that he is gay, finds Titus the very hero that he has needed.  The friendship between Titus and Julius is one of the most beautiful features of the novel.

All the wonderful friendships presented here—that between Nat and Archy, that between Gwen and Aviva, and that between the boys—are challenged in various ways, as indeed are all the marriages and the business relationships too.  The ways in which these characters cope with the difficulties of their lives is what makes this novel so fascinating.

When the novel opens, a local hero, a wealthy black ex-NFL-quarterback, returns to the area and plans to build a huge arts-music center that will of course swallow up Brokeland Records.  A great deal of energy goes into resisting this takeover, but as the resistance starts to fail, these characters become distracted in other ways.  Time passes and change is inevitable, but not all change is for the worse.

This is novel about faith in people and faith in their ability to do the right thing.  It is also a novel about how hard it is sometimes to see what the right thing is.  I hardly need to add that the novel is gorgeously written and breathtakingly plotted.  We are so used to great novels from Michael Chabon that we might even start to take them for granted.  But whatever our expectations might be, this is a really great novel by any measure.

Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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