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Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue (original 2012; edition 2013)

by Michael Chabon

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1,374695,562 (3.5)96
Title:Telegraph Avenue
Authors:Michael Chabon
Info:HarperCollins (2013), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:Oakland, Berkeley, record stores, fatherhood, midwifery, friendship

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Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012)

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“They were little more than boys, and yet while they differed in race, in temperament, and in their understanding of love, they were united in this: The remnant of their boyhood was a ballast they wished to cut away.”

“The past was irretrievable, the league of lonely men a fiction, the pursuit of the past a doomed attempt to run a hustle on mortality.”

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are longtime friends and they run a funky little record shop called Brokeland Records. It is located on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Archy is thirty-six and expecting his first child. A big-shot, businessman wants to buy out their store and open a megastore. It is tempting, since the store is a fading relic and they struggle to survive but there are plenty of conflicting forces, keeping them from pulling the trigger.

This novel is a mosiac of pop culture, filled with music references, mostly classic jazz and soul, films from the 70s, Blaxploitation and Bruce Lee movies. A Tarantino tapestry, told in smart, fast-paced prose, that Chabon makes looks so smooth and easy. The characters are vivid and memorable. A nice companion piece to High Fidelity and it is refreshing to see African Americans characters, front and center. ( )
  msf59 | Oct 9, 2016 |
Slogging, dragging through Chabon's Oakland. Somehow Yiddish in Alaska or even comic book blurbs in New York were easier going. Welll I ran out of steam about two hundred pages in and the library wanted it back. I am cheating and moving it over to read (past tense). ( )
  kerns222 | Aug 24, 2016 |
Telegraph Avenue is almost completely not what I expected Michael Chabon's latest novel to be. But isn't that always the case, with Chabon? He goes from imagining the biographies of a pair of golden age comics creators to swashbuckling medieval Jews-with-swords to crime/noir in an alternate history Alaska to a World War II era Sherlock Holmes story. And those are just the ones I have personally read and loved. A lot.

Telegraph Avenue has plenty to offer those of us who love Chabon for his nuanced and staggeringly deep appreciation of pop culture, past and present (this time he's picking on vinyl -- the location at the heart of the story is a used record shop specializing in rare and collectible LPs, 78s and 45s -- and blaxploitation kung-fu movies) and for his lovely prose style, but, as usual, these are merely ornamental, and there is even more going on around these grace notes than usual.

The aforementioned record shop is of the sort I always wish existed somewhere near me, preferably in walking distance: a "church of vinyl" that is also a neighborhood hangout for a diverse collection of musicians and music lovers. The co-owners, a white Jewish appreciator named Nat and a black musician named Archy, have wives who are also in business together, as midwives, and Archy's wife Gwen is expecting their first child (well, at least, their first child together. Ahem). Which is to say that family life and parenthood are themes in Telegraph Avenue that are way more compelling and important than a bunch of vinyl nerds sounding off at Brokeland Records, or the threat posed to the store by the looming possibility of an NFL star's deep-pocketed one-stop pop culture megastore just down the street. Way more.

"There was nothing a man couldn't do with three thousand doillars and a suitcase full of canned tuna fish and pregnancy brassieres."

Generations of Archy's family are complicating his life: an estranged father, Luther, who made a splash as a kung-fu actor in a series of blaxploitation hits in the 70s and then disappeared with his leggy co-star into the standard sordid-ness of drug addiction and petty crime but never gave up on the idea of making another sequel to his breakout film -- and whom now someone very much wants to track down and probably not for a good reason -- the bump in Gwen's stomach, and a teenaged-son, Titus, from a teenaged hook-up who has suddenly surfaced in Archy's life, about whom Archy never got around to telling his wife... Oh, and then there's Nat's son, Julius, who has a crush on Titus... Somehow none of this ever spins into melodrama, and that somehow is Michael Chabon, a prose poet of love and forgiveness and failure if ever there was one. Every single one of these characters has a deeply, richly imagined inner life, full of longing and aspiration and bitterness and regret. And moments of sheer transcendence are doled out to them, too:

None of these echoes prepared Titus for the truth of the greatness of Luther Stallings as revealed in patches by the movies themselves, even the movies that sucked ass. None readied him for the strange warmth that rained down onto his heart as he sat on the couch last night with the best and only friend he'd ever had, watching that balletic assassin in Night Man, with those righteous cars and that ridiculous bounty of fine women, a girl with a silver Afro. Luther Stallings, the idea of Luther Stallings, felt to Titus like no one and no place had ever felt: a point of origin. A legendary birthplace, lost in the mists of Shaolin or the far-off technojungles of Wakanda. There in the dark beside Julie, watching his grandfather, Titus got a sense of his own life's foundation in the time of myth and heroes. For the first time since coming to consciousness of himself, small and disregarded as a penny in a corner of the world's bottom drawer, Titus Joyner saw in his own story a shine of value, and in himself the components of glamour.

And that's just while they're watching TV, Titus and Julius indulging their curiosity with a round of films starring Titus' grandfather, quite possibly the Toughest Black Man in America of his day. Along the way we get a cameo from none other than Barack Obama, a long discourse on how the Pullman porter of yesteryear was the secret vector of black culture nationwide and the bedrock of what later became the black middle class of America, a flight over the streets and rooftops of Oakland in the company of a recently freed African Gray parrot; shards of possibility, of potential, some fulfilled and some not, all expertly evoked.

Some readers may dislike the picaresque meandering of the plot: this is by no means any kind of potboiler or thriller, whatever its dy-no-mite components. It's a character-driven story, and most of the characters are kind of losers, or suspect they are (Archy, for instance, considers himself a ponderer in a world of snap deciders: "A beautiful phrase to the ponderer, the day after tomorrow. The address of utopia itself."), and losers of this kind do not, as a rule, run around saving the world, solving problems, shooting bad guys and blowing stuff up. That only happens in Grandaddy Stallings' movies. Instead we are treated to a lot of scenes, scenes in which the inanimate objects in their obsessively cataloged order or strewn and neglected disarray say almost as much about Archy and Nat and Gwen and Aviva (Nat's wife and Gwen's boss) and Titus and Julius as they do themselves, in their sad, weirdly graceful way.

So no, Telegraph Avenue wasn't really at all what I expected, except in that I expected it would be great, which it absolutely was. ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
All character and not much plot but a lot of fun regardless. It reads like a movie and you can almost see it all as it plays out. If you like Chabon, you should like this. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon follows two couples: Archy Stallings and Gwen Shanks, and Nat Jaffes and Aviva Roth-Jaffe. Archy and Nat run Brokeland Records, a vintage record store, while Gwen and Aviva are the Berkeley Birth Partners, and work together as midwives. Archy and Gwen are black, in the mostly black neighborhood, while Nat and Aviva are white and Jewish. Telegraph Avenue is set in Berkeley, California, and is named after the road that divides Oakland and Berkeley.

While there are several things taking place all at once in the plot of Telegraph Avenue, one event is that former quarterback-turned-entrepreneur Gibson “G Bad” Goode is planning to open a mega-mall called a Dogpile “Thang” emporium in the neighborhood, which would put Brokeland Records out of business. At the same time the existence of Berkeley Birth Partners is being threatened by legal problems as a result of a difficult delivery being moved to the hospital. Additionally, adding to this already stressful mixture is Gwen's impending birth, Luther Stallings (Archie's father, a former blaxploitation movie star) conniving plans, the arrival of Titus (a teenage son Archy didn't know he had), and several other supporting characters in the various plot threads.

Telegraph Avenue is about fathers and sons, families, partners, mentors, race, class, love, friendship, commitment, marriage, medicine. All of this is accompanied by the backbeat of a substantial musical soundtrack and bountiful cultural references, resulting in a vibrant, satisfying and richly layered novel. It is profound and witty, serious and humorous. It is a completely enjoyable novel. The only drawback I found in Telegraph Avenue is the amount of swearing but that is likely because it would not be a normal choice of language for me.

Any review of a novel by Chabon should probably include at least a mention of his love of language and the virtuosity of his writing. Almost every sentence he writes is a labor of love - lyrical, complete, and totally remarkable. Perhaps the best example of this is the one sentence that went on for almost 12 pages. (I will admit that once I realized the sentence was still ongoing, after several pages, then this became distracting until I looked ahead to find the end of the sentence before going back and actually finishing reading it.)

When asked about the construction of his sentences in an NPR interview Chabon said:
NPR Interview: On constructing a sentence
"Sentences are the purest, simplest, most pleasurable part of writing for me. And it's the part that comes the easiest to me. It is frequently the case that I, as I am sitting and writing ... the harbinger of the sentence kind of begins to occur to me in a sort of empty, rhythmic form that has no real meaning yet ... And, you know, instantaneously afterwords, the sense of the sentence fills in that empty vessel and I'm just struggling to kind of keep up with it and get it down. But there are plenty of other times where I am just really working and working and working and working and ... I trample on that initial, beautiful, mystical sentence that emerged ... and I have to try to keep fixing it and tinkering with it. And, you know, I love that aspect of it: the shaping of sentences, the crafting of sentences, that's the fun part of writing for me."

I enjoyed Telegraph Avenue and Very Highly Recommend it.


Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes.

( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
“Telegraph Avenue,” Michael Chabon’s rich, comic new novel, is a homage to an actual place: the boulevard in Northern California where Oakland — historically an African-American city — aligns with Berkeley, whose bourgeois white inhabitants are, as one character puts it, “liable to invest all their hope of heaven in the taste of an egg laid in the backyard by a heritage-breed chicken.” The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: kung fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; and an interest in African-American characters and experience. Chabon and Tarantino make an unlikely duo; while the latter’s films tend toward gaudy eruptions of violence, Chabon bends Tarantino’s sensibility to a warmhearted novel about fatherhood in which the onstage violence consists of two graphic childbirth scenes and a 15-year-old boy whacking a chubby thug with a wooden sword. A self-help book in the style of Andrei Tarkovsky would be hardly more oxymoronic.
Mr. Chabon has constructed an amazingly rich, emotionally detailed story that addresses his perennial themes — about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and the consolations of art — while reaching outward to explore the relationship between time past and time present, the weight (or lightness, as the case may be) of history, and the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.
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Call me Ishmael.

--Ishmael Reed, probably.
To Ayelet, from the drop of the needle to the innermost groove
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A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike.
Like a dog in a cartoon, forepaws a turbine blur as he hunted up a buried bone in a churn of dirt, Nat excavated the cabinets and ransacked the drawers looking for usable serving containers and suitable platters.
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One street in Oakland, California. As the summer draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are hanging in there, co-regents of Brokeland Records. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of legendary midwives.

When former star quarterback Gibson Goode announces plans to dump his latest Dogpile megastore on Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear the worst for their vulnerable little enterprise, as behind Goode’s proposal lurks a nefarious scheme.

While their husbands struggle to mount a defence, Aviva and Gwen find themselves caught up in a professional battle that tests their friendship. And into their already tangled lives comes Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged.
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In this novel the author takes us to Telegraph Avenue. It is a story that explores the profoundly intertwined lives of two Oakland, California families, one black and one white. Here he creates a world grounded in pop culture: Kung Fu, 1970s Blaxploitation films, vinyl LPs, jazz and soul music, and an epic of friendship, race, and secret histories. Longtime band mates Archy and Nat preside over Brokeland Records, a used-record emporium. All is well until a former NFL quarterback, one of the country's richest African Americans, decides to build his latest Dogpile megastore on nearby Telegraph Avenue. Not only could this spell doom for the little shop and its cross-race, cross-class dream, but it opens up past history regarding Archy's untethered dad and a Black Panther-era crime.… (more)

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