Best Book of the Year: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

I had to start a new blog to escape my “debts” to charming publicists who kindly sent me new books I didn’t get around to reviewing at my old blog.

I’m joking.  I started a new blog because I felt constricted by the parameters of the old  (Frisbee:  A Book Journal).  I wanted to branch out and write at least occasionally about things mirabile dictu, “wonderful to say,” rather than horrendum dictu.  (N.B. And I will review some of those books publishers sent me.)

I am happy to say I’ve recently read one new novel so dazzling I am going to post a picture of it on my sidebar:

Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

Telegraph Avenue Michael ChabonIf you know his work, you won’t be surprised that his new novel makes my “Best Book of the Year” list.  Chabon won the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (a novel about the comic book industry) and the Hugo, Sidewise, Nebula and Ignotus awards for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (billed as an alternate history mystery set in Alaska). His gorgeous, convoluted, poetic sentences and intricate plots make him one of the best writers in America. (Other contenders are Ruth Prawer Jhabvala  and Jonathan Lethem.)

So, yes, now that I’ve read Telegraph Avenue, I’ll be reading more Chabon.

Set in 2004, Telegraph Avenue hinges on the fate of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl record store in Oakland whose future is threatened by the prospect of a corporate media store’s moving in.  The novel revolves around the different outlooks  of the two owners, one black and one Jewish, in a way that reflects counterculture life-styles in Oakland. Laid-back Archy Stallings, who borrows a friend’s baby to prepare for fatherhood, is a fan of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which he constantly rereads, an amateur musician, and the son of Luther Stallings, a once famous Blaxploitaion film star of the ’70s.  His bipolar Jewish partner, Nat Jaffe, a hardcore vinyl fan who writes angry letters to the editor and often shows up for work in a volatile temper, “his bad mood a space helmet lowered over his head,” is ready to go into battle for the small business.  The partners are equally passionate about jazz, blues, and funk, but they disagree about what to do:  Nat snaps at Archy’s suggestion of selling espresso or chai in the store, and Archy is furious when Nat calls a neighborhood meeting without telling him.

Once a barber shop, Brokeland Records still has that social vibe going.  Neighbors and customers hang out at the store, among them Cochise Jones, an elderly musician accompanied everywhere by his parrot; Moby, a save-the-whales lawyer who wants to be black; Mr. Garnet Singletary, the King of Bling and their landlord; S. S. Mirchandani, a taxi driver; and Chandler Flowers, an undertaker and powerful if sinister city councilman with a lot of thuggish bodyguards.

When Mr. Singletary tells Archy and Nat they’re “fucked,” that Gibson “G Bad” Goode, a former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and owner of Dogpile, is breaking ground in a month for his Dogpile “Thang,” a mall with a three-story Dogpile media store, they hope the information is wrong.  They had thought Chan Flowers was sticking up for them at City Council and doing environmental impact studies.

But in a sense they know it’s really the end.

So many of the other used-record kings of the East Bay had already gone under, hung it up, or turned themselves into Internet-only operations, closing their doors, letting the taps of bullshit go dry.  Brokeland Records was nearly the last of its kind, Ishi, Chgachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon.

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue isn’t just about Brokeland Records.  It’s about the survival of neighborhood, family, and individuality.  Archy’s pregnant wife, Gwen, and Nat’s wife,  Aviva, are midwives struggling to keep their jobs while doctors and hospitals barely tolerate them.  Nat and Aviva’s son, Julie, is having a gay affair with Archy’s illegitimate son, Titus, whom Gwen doesn’t know about.  And Archy’s father, Luther, whose life has been a struggle since his martial arts exploits in Blaxploitation film days, has come back to Oakland for shady dealings to try to raise money for a new film.   His longtime girlfriend, Valetta, loyally accompanies him, but is not afraid to tell him when he’s an asshole.

Chabon is fascinated by the ’70s and has done deep research on politics in the Bay Area in the ’70s, the Black Panthers, and Blaxploitation films. Part of the novel traces a violent adventure shared by Luther and Chan Flowers in the ’70s.  Luther drives the Toronado, and Chan carries a gun he borrowed from a Black Panters house and a mask and gloves from his younger brother’s Halloween costume:  his brother had been hit by a car.  At the bar Bit ‘o’ Honey, he goes in and shoots Popcorn.

Their young lives are like a Blaxploitation film.

Chabon’s prose is of transcendent beauty, the voices of the characters are pitch-perfect, and the dialogue is often very funny.  Those of us who are/were/have known people trying to live outside the of the corporate-defined-and-dominated society can empathize, even when the characters get a little strident or overwrought.

Easily the best new book I’ve read this year.