Part 2 (of 3) Review of “Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue revolves around the lives of two closely intertwined families. Archy Stallings and Gwen Shanks, both African-American, are expecting their first child together. It turns out that Archy also has a 14-year-old son, Titus Joyner, or T.J., from a previous relationship. Their best friends, white and Jewish Nat Jaffe and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, have a 14-year-old son as well – Julius, called Julie.

Archy and Nat are co-owners of Brokeland, an emporium of used records – mostly jazz and soul from the Sixties on – located at the confluence of Berkeley and Oakland; thus the portmanteau – and as it turns out, double entendre – Brokeland. Gwen and Aviva are also partners, operating a midwife business that primarily serves upper class white women who want to go “natural.”

The interactions of these two families serve as a backdrop for a long meditation on fathers and sons, on following your passion, on the encroachment of big capitalism on small neighborhood institutions, and on the dream of a world in which black and white are not a source of division or tension but just two different shades of the whole variegated mélange of humanity. There are several plot developments that allow these themes to evolve.

As the story begins, Brokeland is threatened by the planned arrival of an entertainment megastore down the street that could undersell Archy and Nat and put them out of business. The struggle for the right to purvey soul is therefore played out in two senses: on the one hand, the big box store would have much more of the vinyl soul, but on the other, the small neighborhood meeting-place would have more of it in heart.

The proposed megastore, Dogpile, is a franchise owned by Gibson Goode, or “G Bad,” a rich black entrepreneur and ex-NFL quarterback. Goode is from the area, and has a history that is enmeshed with that of Archy’s estranged father, Luther Stallings, himself formerly famous as a star of Blaxpolitation films.

Archy not only has a real father, Luther, but a surrogate father, the jazz artist Cochise Jones, who lost his own child shortly after its birth. (Here Chabon echoes the anguish of Leopold Bloom, surrogate father of Stephen Daedalus. Bloom also lost his son shortly after the child was born.) Cochise dies early on in the story, but his shadow helps put into relief both Brokeland and the other characters even after his demise.

The stresses among the characters struggling to cope with the changes in their environment as well as in their own lives come to a head after Cochise Jones, that avatar of the past, is dead and buried. The future rolls in inexorably, and the characters finally come to terms with what they must do to cope with its onset.

Discussion: As I mentioned in my previous post (see Part 1, here), Telegraph Avenue has many parallels to James Joyce’s Ulysses. (After a brief prologue, Archy’s story begins in a way entirely evocative of the opening of Ulysses: “moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby…” [Compare: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”])

Storefront in Dublin

There are also a number of nods to Melville and Proust.

The allusions to Moby Dick are numerous and quite inspired, like this richly referential description of Garnet Singletary, landlord of Brokeland:

“Singletary was an information whale, plying his migratory route through the neighborhood, taking in all the gossip, straining it for nutrients through is tireless baleen.”

Proust is also a powerful influence on this work. Remembrance, and nostalgia generally, form the backbone of the story. (Proust’s masterpiece, the seven volume Remembrance of Things Past, is perhaps best known for its nostalgia theme, especially as expressed in the famous episode when the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and the taste brings back memories of his childhood. For Archy in Telegraph Avenue, the trigger is the “Dream of Cream,” a chocolate cake with “interglaciating floes and tundras of whipped cream.”)

Image of Proust on a madeleine

Image of Proust on a madeleine

The story is book-ended by references to a character who calls himself Mr. Nostalgia, a purveyor of sports cards and other memorabilia from old tv shows and movies. Functioning rather like a Greek chorus, the positioning of this character tells us that this book is about the desperate attempt to hold onto the past in a world catapulting toward a more impersonal future, and about the tenacity of that dream – a tenacity we see in the struggle of indies of all kinds against the big boxes of global capitalism. Brokeland held, within its walls, a history of the neighborhood and the comraderie that brought together people of all colors to “get together and chill, hang out, listen to good music swap wild tales of exaggeration,” and even host the funeral of one of the store’s best customers, Cochise Jones.

And there are numerous allusions – sometimes quite obscure – to iconic aspects of popular culture, especially from the Seventies.

Like Joyce, Chabon includes something for everyone, and it doesn’t really matter if you get them all. As with Ulysses, the fact that the characters are aware of the references matters more, because this illuminates their interests, influences, and levels of cultural engagement. And on a meta-level, it reveals the same about Chabon.

Evaluation: This is not a book I would say I loved, but nevertheless, it definitely served, for me, as another example of Chabon’s genius. His prose is at times marvelous, and the story, while arguably in need of some whittling down, is well-drawn, with characters for whom the author clearly feels empathy and affection. English teachers could have a field day teasing out all the parallels to great books.

Note: For those of you who skipped The Art of Fielding because you didn’t want to read about baseball, it would constitute a similar loss to pass up Telegraph Avenue because you aren’t familiar with jazz from the second half of the twentieth century. Both books are riffs on relationships illuminated, but not overwhelmed, by the dominant metaphor, and both incidentally also spotlight the beauty and normalcy of love between two males. Chabon, in my opinion, is a more accomplished master of the language, but Harbach is more accessible. At any rate, I think neither should be missed.

Rating: 3.5/5

Telegraph Avenue is published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

In my third and final post on this book, I will continue my review of Chabon with a look at why his skill as a writer impresses me so much.

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7 Responses to Part 2 (of 3) Review of “Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon

  1. Beth F says:

    I haven’t every read Chabon. I don’t know why I’m just not drawn to him. I like baseball but never got past about page 60 in Art of Fielding. You make a good case for Chabon but I’m not promising to read. And I love jazz.

  2. Now I’m sure I’m not smart enough for this book.

  3. zibilee says:

    I am starting to cave on this book, Jill. Normally, it wouldn’t be my thing, but you’ve made some really powerful statements in your reviews and they lead me to believe that I would be missing something by passing this one up. I don’t know if I will get the whole thing, but I’m going to give it a try!

  4. Jenners says:

    I’m beginning to think I’m not smart enough to read this book.

  5. That is too funny – the jazz is what would draw me to the book more than the other aspects. Although I still haven’t read The Art of Fielding because of the baseball (terrible of me, I know). I like books that have extra layers in them and tidbits to discover, however I don’t know how much I would care for the writing style, just from the quotes that you shared here. Very nice review though!

  6. claire says:

    I love jazz. And with the Proust and MobyDick nods, mm.. convincing. I kind of see why this wouldn’t be for everyone. Maybe it won’t even be for me but I’m intrigued nonetheless.

  7. One day I may read this one 😀

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