Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has written a stunner of a book starring complex, intriguing, flawed, yearning characters who are both larger-than-life and wholly believable.
While spinning out their tale of domestic drama, Chabon also manages to delve into the big themes of contemporary American life—race, economic disparity, the various effects of local and corporate businesses on communities, the nature of family and community, the shifting nature of popular and national culture, and more. In lesser novels, big themes have a way of overwhelming characters and story, but Chabon never lets that happen in “Telegraph Avenue” (Harper, 469 pages, $27.99). His cast of characters and their struggles—mostly of their own making—are firmly center stage throughout the book.
Two couples—the black Archy Stallings and Gwen Shanks and the white Nat Jaffe and Aviva Roth-Jaffe—are the primary protagonists. The men are partners in an Oakland record shop menaced by the possible arrival of a megastore (a fact complicated by the megastore owner being a community native) and the women are partner midwives. Marriages and friendships and partnerships are thrown into disarray by a variety of circumstances, not the least of which is the appearance on the scene of Archy’s long-estranged father and long-ignored son.
The book contains some of the most energetic and delightful passages about music—particularly jazz—that I have ever encountered in a novel. A small sample:
“He lowered the tonearm, and from a pair of speaker grilles, a drum pattern emerged and repeated itself, b-boom boom CHICK! In 4/4 time, the kick muffled, mixed very dry and miked with the attention to detail that marked 1970s recording of drums but partaking, through having been sampled so many times by subsequent hip-hop acts, of a timelessness beyond period or style.”
The novel is also spiced with a variety of pop culture references, some quite a bit more obscure than others, which had me hitting up Wikipedia for quick information. This might sound like a chore, but all in all, I found it a delightful part of engaging with the novel. I felt satisfaction when I understood a reference and curiosity when I didn’t.
All of which is to say (and it bears the repetition): Read Michael Chabon’s new novel, “Telegraph Avenue.”