by Michael Chabon Published by Fourth Estate (Allen & Unwin in New Zealand,) October 2012
Reviewed by C P Howe
Michael Chabon, with his contemporaries Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, has an astonishing knack for writing about American lives in a way that makes you feel you know personally the places and people behind the stories.
Chabon once found, at his parents house, a box of old comics he’d put away as a child, and was reminded how much he loved them. That led to his most widely acclaimed work, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book that takes in Houdini, the Holocaust, and the golden age of comic books, through Sammy and Joe’s invention, a hero called The Escapist. To read Chabon is to be in an alternate universe, where the characters and story arcs are utterly familiar, totally convincing, yet completely fictional.
Telegraph Avenue is Chabon’s latest novel. He also writes young adult and science fiction, comic books that bring to life The Escapist titles from Kavalier and Clay, and more. Telegraph Avenue isn’t a slim volume – it runs to 468 tightly spaced pages. Chabon has said, ‘If you want to write novels, they take a long time, and they’re big, and they have a lot of words in them…’ and how he makes sure he writes for four or five hours a day, every day. Even taking this work ethic into account the volume of work he creates is remarkable.
Telegraph Avenue is set on the border of Oakland and Berkeley in California, in the mid-2000s, and follows the owners of a small, independent record store, the existence of which is threatened by a new development – Dogpile enterprises, a music megastore – a couple of blocks away. Chabon’s characters are immense and have great depth; they have real lives, real flaws, real loves. The love of music and records, for one. Complex families and friends, with unfaithful husbands and newly discovered teenage children. Semi-famous pasts as footballers-cum-blaxpoitation movie-actors, or musicians who made sought after classic albums, but never made it big. The sort of people whose collectible cards are now worth more than they are; the sort of people who still play gigs with their old Hammond organs, heavy and expensive to repair.
Chabon has also said that Kavalier and Clay was the first time he was really satisfied with his attempts to write from multiple points of view. We should be glad that he succeeded, because Telegraph Road takes that success and runs with it. We see the world through Nat and Archy, the record store owners; through their children, Titus and Julie; through their wives, Gwen and Aviva; and even through Mr Cochise’s parrot. And throughout, their collective problem looms large – the soon to be built Dogpile Thang, with its promise not of bland mega-mall music, but of a depth and quality of vinyl that Nat and Archy can only dream of. How could they be against something that is precisely what they stand for, even if it means their own demise?
The narrative is dense, complex, and challenging in places, and after 190 pages I started to wonder just where Chabon was going with it. And, at precisely that moment, he absolutely nails it. Although the book is divided into five sections – shown on the cover, as if they were tracks on a record – what Chabon does between pages 193 and 198 splits the book neatly in two. It is as if everything that happened up to that point couldn’t have led anywhere else, and what Archy says as he arrives at Mr Cochise’s funeral sets the second half on an inevitable course.
Telegraph Avenue doesn’t have the big historical themes of Kavalier and Clay, or DeLillo’s Underworld. It is about Archy and Nat, their family and friends, their community, making their way through life, the occasional fleeting touch of fame barely remembered by anyone. And it is about the music, always the music.
I loved the way Chabon has constructed this novel. The incredible dialogue, the sense of place, the complex relationships, all create a vivid world for the reader. His metaphors may be strained sometimes, but a book that includes a pair of seventies Blaxploitation actors, an elderly kung fu teacher called Mrs Jew who claims to have ‘kicked Bruce Lee’s ass, every day,’ and a Hammond organ playing musician who owns a parrot called Fifty-Eight and once made a record called Redbonin’ is allowed to go over the top from time to time.
All the way through to the acknowledgements – which include, for Mythbusters fans, a special thanks to Adam Savage for advice on ‘dirigible liberation’ – Telegraph Avenue is a hugely entertaining, interesting and moving book. Highly recommended.