Michael Chabon writes annoyingly well about anyone, anywhere, anything. Be it a college professor in Pittsburgh, comic book artists in 1940s New York, Jewish policemen in Alaska, or, as in his latest book Telegraph Avenue, two owners of a vinyl record shop in Northern California.
As many Chabon fans can attest, it has been a long five years we’ve waited for a new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winner. What makes Chabon special is the way he tells his tales; he is the definition of wordsmith. Each word is carefully chosen, and sentences are impeccably crafted. Perhaps the most striking is a 12-page long sentence (yes, you read that right) that few authors could pull off.
Telegraph Avenue revolves around music, and is especially lyrical, even when compared to Chabon’s previous novels. This effort keeps music threaded through the novel, so it doesn’t fade among the various plotlines.
And there are plenty of parallel plots. We are first introduced to the protagonists — lifelong friends Archy Stallings, the son of a former 1970s Blaxploitation Kung Fu film star, and Nat Jaffe, his neurotic, slightly manic Jewish partner — at their used vinyl shop that specializes in jazz. Brokeland Records is named for the meager landscape the store sits in, a location straddling the hippie enclave of Berkeley and the historically black city of Oakland, Calif. It’s 2004 and the world of online music is growing. The pair isn’t currently addressing that however and, instead, is preoccupied with a music retail rival. Gibson Goode, an ex-NFL quarterback and the fifth richest black man in America, is coming to their turf to open an outlet of Dogpile Records, his music megastore. Their business-related stress intensifies when they discover their city councilman Chan Flowers, who’s been fighting for them, has switched sides.
Nat and Archy aren’t the only characters facing career pressure. Their wives, Aviva Roth-Jaffe and the very-pregnant Gwen Shanks, two well-respected midwives, may be on the verge of losing their business due to a near-disaster birth. The incident led to Gwen instigating a showdown with a doctor at a local hospital.
Adding to the drama is the sudden appearance of Archy’s teenage son Titus Joyner. Stallings has never known Joyner, has barely acknowledged his existence aside from sending a check for $375 when the boy was a toddler. Then there’s Nat and Aviva’s 14-year-old son Julius, who is discovering he’s gay and who has fallen madly in love with Titus. Although Titus may not share these romantic feelings, he is happy to help Julius explore his sexuality, which understandably complicates things.
Archy’s world continues to spin out of control when another relation shows up, this time his father Luther, to whom Archy hasn’t spoken in years. But Luther isn’t in town simply to reunite with his estranged son. He’s there to settle a score with a former partner from his past, Councilman Flowers.
Plot-heavy as Telegraph Avenue is, Chabon weaves in humor throughout the book. Characters are flawed and eccentric. They have conversations that while not necessarily relevant to the plot — there’s a four-page debate between Chan and Luther about the meaning of “Toranado,” the car that Luther takes immeasurable pride in — capture hilariously the everyday dialogue of people’s lives.
What lies at the heart of Chabon’s success with this novel is his lack of fear addressing the boundaries and intersections of race, class, and sexuality, combined with his ability to do so while making people laugh. Telegraph Avenue validates why the world has designated Chabon to be a literary genius, and why we will all be frustrated if we have to wait another five years for his next novel.
Where: Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables)
When: 8 p.m. Monday, October 15
Price: Free tickets while they last. People with tickets will be seated first. Entry will be allowed, space permitting, to those without tickets at 7:45 p.m.
Contact: Visit booksandbooks.com