A review of Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
If you’re thinking that this is the story of Berkeley in the 60s, when Telegraph Avenue entered the national consciousness with marijuana and teargas, you’ll soon find that your expectations are off by several decades and a couple of miles. Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is set farther south, on a less familiar stretch of the eponymous street that straddles South Berkeley and North Oakland, and the events in the book transpire in 2004, even though they have roots in the 70s.
The most notable aspect of this comic novel is Chabon’s showmanship with words, which cascade down the page in glorious profusion, evoking image after image. I’ve never before seen so many similes and metaphors crammed onto a single page, but again and again — and Chabon isn’t showing off, he’s conveying an intense reality in spectacular Technicolor and 3-D. (Well, maybe he was showing off a little with one run-on sentence, a whole chapter, that rivals anything in Faulkner or Joyce.) Though Telegraph Avenue is packed with humor, I found myself marveling at the language instead of laughing, and I come away from reading the book with vivid images of Chabon’s unforgettable characters and a smile on my face rather than memories of laughing out loud.
The themes in Telegraph Avenue include birth and death, loss and betrayal, the glories of fatherhood, teenage angst, the continuing challenges of interracial relationships, and the intensely present power of music in the lives of so many Americans. Chabon lays bare these themes in the lives of four forty-something residents of the Telegraph Avenue corridor: two Caucasians, Nat Jaffe (jazz fanatic and co-owner of Brokeland Records, which sells old vinyl) and his wife Aviva Roth-Jaffe (dean of Berkeley midwives); and two African-Americans, the on-again off-again couple of Archy Stallings (co-owner of Brokeland Records) and Gwen Shanks (Aviva’s partner in Berkeley Birth Partners). In the ups and downs (mostly downs) of these four interconnected lives, and a full cast of extraordinary secondary characters who surround them (including Barack Obama as a State Senator), Chabon explores his themes with a sure hand.
Telegraph Avenue works for me on every level. Once again, Pulitzer-Prize-winner Michael Chabon has proven himself to be one of the most extraordinary storytellers and wordsmiths at work on Planet Earth today.
Chabon’s work has been enthusiastically received from the very start of his career with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in 1988. His previous novels also include The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007). Of Chabon’s seven novels, I’ve now read those three as well as Telegraph Avenue, and all were outstanding. And I’m proud to say that Michael Chabon is my landsman (as my grandfathers would say), a fellow Berkeleyite.