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.