Thursday, March 7, 2013

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: A review

I have admired and enjoyed the writing in two earlier books by Michael Chabon that I have read - The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Gentlemen of the Road. I've never gotten around to reading what is supposedly his best book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I will one day. I had high hopes for Telegraph Avenue as well, but I have to say I was a little bit disappointed in it. It was a difficult read for me.

Reading the book was a chore mainly I think because so many of the musical references were unfamiliar to me. I think I got the gist of their meaning in most instances, but not without more work than I like to do when I'm reading for pleasure.

The action of the book takes place in Oakland, California, and has its roots in the Oakland of the 1970s during the heyday of the Black Panther movement and of blaxploitation films. I am old enough to remember those days and the cultural vibe of the period, but, as for the vinyl records of the period that are at the heart of protagonists Archy Stallings' and Nat Jaffe's story, well, they are less familiar.

Nat and Archy own a second-hand - they would say "vintage" - record store in Oakland on Telegraph Avenue, called Brokeland Records. Archy is black, Nat is white and a Jew. Telegraph Avenue is a place of cultural diversity where people of many backgrounds come together to create a unique community. 

That community and the record store are threatened by the possibility of the coming of a big box store, a chain enterprise of a former star footballer named Gibson Goode. This big store would have its own vintage record department and would likely drive the already marginal Brokeland out of business.

A local landlord and entrepreneur and a city councilman have an interest in the plans and Archy and Nat hope to get their support for stopping the building of the big store.

Things get really convoluted with the plot as we learn that Archy's absentee father, a former blaxploitation kung fu film star, may have information that could be used to blackmail the councilman and the old man (Archy's father) may be in danger because of it.

Meanwhile, we learn that Archy himself is an absentee father. Fourteen years before, he got a girl pregnant and she went home to Texas to have the baby and live with her grandmother. Now, both the mother and grandmother are dead and the son has turned up in Oakland looking for his father.

I think part of my problem with the book was that I didn't like its main characters very much. Both Archy and Nat seemed like jerks to me and I couldn't work up too much empathy for their troubles.

On the other hand, I really liked their wives, Gwen Stark and Aviva Roth-Jaffe. 

Gwen and Aviva are partners, also, in a midwifery enterprise. They deliver babies for their clients, who are mostly poor and disadvantaged, either in their homes or in the hospital. These are strong women, strong characters who give the book coherence and social relevance. I found their stories much more compelling than those of the male "main characters." Is that merely sexist of me? Maybe. 

Chabon had obviously done his research on the vintage jazz vinyl record artists. Some of the names referenced throughout the book were familiar to me, many of them were not, but I assume the references were legitimate. He also recreated what seemed to me at least to be the true historical atmosphere of excitement and occasional violence that existed in the Black Panthers in the Oakland of the 1970s. 

Chabon is a very talented writer and many passages in the book really grabbed me. Unfortunately, those would often be followed by long passages that sort of pushed me away again. While I didn't NOT enjoy the book, I just didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped to.

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