28 September 2012

Books: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012)

After Michael Chabon had two successful books under his name –The Mysteries of Pittsburg and Wonder Boys – it was Jonathan Yardley, book critic of the Washington Post- that perhaps influenced Chabon to write beyond what he had already accomplished with his two previous novels.  Already, the authors work was known for its complex language, recurring themes, especially nostalgia (themes both Peter Straub and Stephen King have been using for decades as well), fatherhood, Jewish identity and divorce. He also has a fascination with gay or bisexual characters (same as John Irving does). So  he needed someone to point out, as most people do, that you are capable of doing so much more if you’re willing to take the leap.

Yardley, while a huge supporter of Wonder Boys, felt Chabon was too preoccupied "with fictional explorations of his own ... It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds." Chabon admits it was this criticism that chimed in with his own thoughts and he began to explore other aspects of fiction, embracing genre stuff that he loved just as much as standard fiction. But it was a discovery of old comic books that ignited his passion of the past that helped him achieve something that was beyond even him, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Since then, Chabon has enjoyed a bit of freedom of risk with his work, which included the kid’s book about baseball called Summerland and the alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

His newest novel is Telegraph Avenue (adapted from an idea for a TV series pilot that he was asked to write in 1999 apparently), and is about two long-time friends, African-American Oakland lifer Archy Stallings and white Berkeley denizen Nat Jaffe, who own Brokeland Records, a used record store that carries mostly Jazz and Soul vinyl’s and is slowly going bust, despite it being a community institution. To potentially add the final nail in their coffin, a huge megaplex fronted by Dogpile Records is set to be constructed nearby. To add even more drama to the novel –after all, it’s hard to build a story on just that premise- he spins that minor fuss into a complex story of two families that are at a crossroads that goes beyond the commentary about a small businesses facing increased competition from corporate takeovers (by setting it in August of 2004, Chabon is also able to sidestep the extra layering of what downloading of music did to retail stores in later years). Also included is Archy's and Nat's wives, who run a midwife practice together, Archy's blaxploitation-era movie-star father and the dad's gun-moll girlfriend, and other imagined Oakland locals such as jazz-organ veteran Cochise Jones, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Gibson Goode, and 90-year-old kung fu master Irene Jew. 

Also added is the relationship between Nat’s son Julian (he goes by Julie) and Archy’s illegitimate son Titus –who walks back into his life like a cold wind off San Francisco Bay. Julie, who has been harboring Titus since his arrival a month earlier, is in the throes of first love, while Titus –occupied by his estrangement from his father and other adult failings in his life- is indifferent. He screws Julie, but does not consider himself gay. I was actually surprised Chabon did these scenes, for some reason. I'm pleased, in many ways, though.

The novels themes of race, politics, infidelity, community, nostalgia, regret, and midwives figure prominently in the story, as does Quentin Tarantino, an oddly 12-page sentence and, for some reason, a  cameo appearance by future president, Barack Obama. Still, while the book peters out a bit towards the end, it is still a wonderful tome for readers who love language; metaphors and (perhaps) a love of old jazz records. Chabon is a hugely talented writer, and there are times that make me wish I could write this well, to come up with the perfect similes and analogies and metaphors that wrap you up like a good sweater on a summer day when the wind blows in the City by the Bay.

No comments: