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Telegraph Avenue
by Michael Chabon
Harper (2012)
Telegraph Avenue
What is the state of race relations in the Obama-era United States? This is the question posed by Michael Chabon's novel Telegraph Avenue. Unfortunately, the book does not provide an answer. It instead offers a beautifully-drawn jumble of a portrait.

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run the Brokeland record store in a literal and figurative borderland between Oakland and Berkeley. The black/white duo struggles to come to grips with Brokeland's impending demise at the hands of a soon-to-be-built megastore. Nat and Archy are bound together by their collective residence in the past, chatting on a corded land line telephone and clinging to deep cuts off their prized '70s vinyl. If you did not already guess, Brokeland is a metaphor for interracial relationships. If that wasn't already clear, Chabon is going to spell it out for you. As Archy says, "when people start looking at other people, people not like them, one thing they often end up liking about those people is their music. Th[at]'s sort of a, what, an ideal that I know Nat and me always had in mind for this store." In at least one interview, Chabon has even likened Brokeland to Huck and Jim in the raft.

So if Brokeland is doomed, is there hope for blacks and whites to ever be friends once again? Fear not: Nat's son Julius befriends Archy's long-lost son, Titus. In this too-convenient turn of events, our figurative hopes for interracial friendships are restored, having come full circle. But if all's well that ends well, what is the point of the novel?

Archy and Nat's sons aren't the only black/white duo that hits a few bumps in the eponymous Avenue. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, occupy a subplot. Gwen ("the Alice Waters of midwives") and Aviva run a home-birthing practice, another independent business experiencing an existential crisis. This storyline is the weakest of the novel. Couldn't the women be involved in something, well, less female-centric? Besides putting the novel's women in stereotypical roles, the midwifery plot line relies on trite satires of Berkeley liberals. It's not that Berkeley isn't worthy of satire, its that we've been here before (Pynchon's Vineland, to name just one example).

If the novel's muddled message and tired satire don't disappoint you, Chabon's recycled plot devices might. We've seen these plot elements before: fathers reunited with sons (Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay); young gay men coming of age (Mysteries of Pittsburgh); omniscient parrot narrators (The Final Solution). In some instances, Chabon's recurring themes can be powerful. When Julius and Titus venture into downtown Oakland, they gaze upon the city with a wonder matching the majesty described in Chabon's earlier work, such as the "cloud factory" of Mysteries of Pittsburgh or the Empire State Building in Kavalier & Clay. In Oakland's ports, "the container boxes... [were] monster piles of colored brick like stabs at some ambitious Lego project left unfinished, interchangeable as casino chips." In other instances, though, Chabon employs plot devices that are downright cliche. When Gwen herself is about to give birth, the story races to a predictable climax. (She even says, in boilerplate dialogue, "you need to get me to the hospital.") The very premise of 'interracial record store owners amid hustlers and a changing neighborhood' even recalls George Pelecanos's Sweet Forever.

If Telegraph Avenue's story is unoriginal, its prose is anything but. It reads as if the Stallings family's Chinese kung fu instructor, Irene Jew, of, yes, the "Jew-Tang Clan," had taught Chabon creative writing at her Bruce Lee Institute. Chabon doesn't write like Archy's father Luther fights in his blaxploitation classic, "Strutter," though. This book is more like mixed martial arts. While Telegraph Avenue tips its hat (somewhat bafflingly) to Quentin Tarantino, Chabon avoids over-stylizing African American dialogue. Some characters may 'talk black,' but the narrator is Chabon and his voice is as clear and comic as ever.

Michael Chabon is likely one of the best American novelists alive. The strength of the prose in Telegraph Avenue proves it. Chabon's best work explores our relationship to literature and mines our dreams and anxieties. Telegraph Avenue, an attempt at satire, does not achieve the epic heights of Kavalier & Clay or the genre-bending imagination of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Worst of all, it doesn't ring true to this reader. I've never been to Oakland, but the relationships between Archy and Nat, Gwen and Aviva, or Julius and Titus - mostly free of anxiety, self-consciousness, or awkwardness - match few of the interracial friendships that I've known. Chabon's optimism challenges the dark vision Jonathan Lethem put forth in his stunning but bleak Fortress of Solitude but perhaps overshoots the target. If people really did get along like these characters, maybe we would actually be closer to a real post-racial America.
Posted by: CJ

Print Reviews (October 17th, 2012)


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