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08 October 2013

Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Author: Michael Chabon
Publication Date: September 11, 2012
Publisher: Harper Collins
Genre: Adult Contemporary Fiction
Find It: GoodreadsAmazonB&NBook Depository
Source: ARC from publisher received at ALA

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.

When ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples' already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe's life.

An intimate epic, a NorCal Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz and pulsing with a virtuosic, pyrotechnical style all its own, Telegraph Avenue is the great American novel we've been waiting for. Generous, imaginative, funny, moving, thrilling, humane, and triumphant.

The year is 2004 and it’s a time of change for the inhabitants and merchants of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, CA. Archie Stallings and Nat Jaffe are a dying breed, barely keeping the doors of Brokeland Records open. Brokeland is one of the last holdouts to the digital age - an oasis of vinyl - and is a popular neighborhood haunt. But a proposal for a megastore puts Brokeland in jeopardy and unearths some dirty secrets long kept hidden.

I picked up Telegraph Avenue with hope and a little bit of trepidation. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of my all time favorite books. It was the book that first brought Chabon to my attention and I have read most of his books since then hoping to find that magic that I found with Kavalier & Clay. Telegraph Avenue piqued my interest not only because it was written by Chabon but also because music plays a large role in it (I love music and work in the music industry) and is also set a mere 35 miles from my hometown. Perhaps my expectations were too high but, while Telegraph Avenue was a unique book, I can't really say that I enjoyed it.

One of my biggest problems with the book were the characters in it. For one, there were a lot of them. The book jumps frequently from one character to the next and I found that it took me quite a while to get everyone straight. I also had a really hard time connecting with any of them. I especially had issues with Archy, who acted like an ass through most of the book. I didn’t understand any of his motivations and felt that he got off pretty easy, given the circumstances. Luther Stallings, a former blaxploitation star who has fallen on hard times, was probably the most compelling character though he, too, is very one-dimensional. The other characters, while interesting (yes, I am using that word a lot in this review), didn’t elicit any strong feelings from me.

Chabon’s writing, while showing great skill, was cumbersome. I felt my eyes glazing over during some of the really long, detailed passages. I also had to look up a lot of words, some of which my Kindle did not even recognize. I know I am no scholar but it really takes me out of a book if I have to look up a word every few pages or have to re-read a passage to understand what is going on. Surprisingly, one of the easiest passages for me to read was Chapter 3, which consists of a single 12-page sentence. But I see no point in such a passage except as a literary exercise. While all of this shows how skilled a writer Chabon is, it only served to bog down the already slow plot.

Amidst all of the metaphor and florid description, there is a story in here about the changing world and the loss of community and identity due to corporate takeover. I found the colorful cast of characters intriguing, but I felt like we only scratched the surface with them. Chabon does a good job of creating a believable setting and I really felt like I was strolling the streets of Oakland with these characters.

None of Chabon's subsequent books has managed to capture me the way that Kavalier & Clay did and perhaps it's not fair to expect them to. Though this book was a little hard to get through, I am glad that I read it. It feels like an accomplishment and I am pretty proud of myself for reading the 12-page sentence and understanding it. I am still a fan of Chabon’s work and will read his next book, but I don’t think I would recommend Telegraph Avenue except to die hard fans.

*I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This, in no way, affected my opinion or review of this book.

This review is part of the paperback release book tour for Telegraph Avenue. Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour. For the full tour schedule please visit the website here.

Visit the author online at michaelchabon.com and on his Facebook page.

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