‘Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon: A tribute to vintage vinyl

September 4, 2012

Has Michael Chabon finally settled down, traded in his red cape for a pair of comfort-fit jeans? The last time we saw the celebrated hipster, he was chasing bandits around 10th-century Khazaria. Before that, he was solving a murder mystery in the Jewish state of Alaska. And his genre-blending, Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” still casts a superhero shadow over American literature.

But now, look, on the shelf — it’s not a bird! It’s not a plane! It’s a domestic novel about the demands of being a father and running a small business. Instead of a cosmic battle against Nazis, the characters in his new book are working through the city council to fight gentrification. Even without spells of Jewish mysticism and Marvel heroics, we’re racing through the world of Chabon, the Washington-born writer whose sentences are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Whether you’ll be able to keep up with all those inexhaustible stylistic feats is another matter.

Telegraph Avenue” is his tribute to vintage vinyl, those great used-record shops that have mostly spun out of existence. Think Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” digitally remastered in rococo funk. The pages are stacked with albums from Miles Davis’s On the Corner” to Charles Kynard’s “Wa-Tu-Wa-Zui.” (The e-book offers music and related video clips.)

The story revolves around efforts to save the Brokeland Records store in a gritty part of Oakland, Calif., a few miles from the home Chabon shares with his wife, Ayelet Waldman. As a sign of the author’s superpowers, HarperCollins is temporarily converting an Oakland bookstore into a model of Brokeland Records — all part of this novel’s astonishing $250,000 marketing campaign.

But in the fictional world of “Telegraph Avenue,” money is in short supply. Brokeland Records, “the church of vinyl,” is threatened by a megastore to be built by the fifth-richest black man in America, an all-pro quarterback named Gibson “G Bad” Goode, who flies around the country in a silver dirigible. G Bad’s shiny retail complex promises to create hundreds of jobs in a 60,000-square-foot retail mall anchored by a three-story media store specializing in African American culture with a deep selection of “vintage vinyl recordings of jazz, funk, blues, and soul.”


‘Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon (Harper)

While the residents of this depressed neighborhood are singing “At Last,” the owners of Brokeland Records are worried that “The Thrill is Gone.” Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings know they’ll have to fight to save their little store from G Bad’s new mall. “Men like Archy and Nat,” Chabon explains, “would wage wars, found empires, lose their dignity and their fortunes for the sake of vinyl.” Their only hope is to dig up zoning complications or generate community opposition, but how exactly does one rally against jobs and new construction in a poor section of town?

Archy, a Gulf War vet, is a philandering black guy who’s about to become a father. His business partner, Nat, is a misanthropic white guy. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are partners in their own midwife business. The husbands believe that “real and ordinary friendship between black people and white people was possible,” but the far more daring move is Chabon’s willingness to shake up the politely segregated world of literary fiction. He not only fills his novel with black characters but also gives them prominence over the white ones.

From these two couples, Chabon quickly expands his story into ever-greater complexity. The record store draws in a colorful collection of regulars, gangsters, “black-acting white men,” local politicians — some outrageously dressed in vintage leisure suits that “flamed into wild pseudo-Aztec embroidery” — and even a wisecracking parrot.

The novel’s most compelling story line — and its most dramatic incident — involves Gwen’s responsibility for a home birth that goes wrong. Accusations against her get tangled up in racial slurs and the old antagonism between doctors and midwives. There’s a rich mother lode of issues involving race, class and medicine.

But Gwen’s husband, Archy, remains the central character, a lovable slacker who can’t seem to get anything in his life organized except his record collection. Chabon cleverly designs the opening of the novel so that every beam holding up Archy’s existence is ready to snap: His wife’s job is imperiled by accusations of malpractice; his latest affair has been exposed; a teenage son he’s never acknowledged comes riding by on a bicycle; his mentor suddenly dies; his estranged father, a blaxploitation star from the 1970s, is involved in a case of murder and blackmail; and, of course, he’s about to lose his record store.

Fans who’ve been waiting since 2007 for another novel from Chabon should — in the words of William DeVaughn — “Be Thankful For What You Got.” But others might be justified in feeling that we’ve got a bit too much this time. Yes, it’s witty and compassionate and full of more linguistic derring-do than any other writer in America could carry off. But despite Chabon’s dazzling brilliance as a stylist, huge sections of “Telegraph Avenue” read like they’ve been written by a man being paid by the word who has a balloon mortgage due. The exuberant flights of “Kavalier & Clay” seem freighted here with excess. It’s not just the stunts — like Sen. Barack Obama’s weird cameo or the single sentence that pants along for 12 pages. It’s the oppressive verbiage these characters endure from this narrator, as though they’re trudging through syrup. Almost anything in the story can set off a vast inventory of rhetorical knickknacks — what Chabon refers to in one too-revealing phrase as “irritable detail.”

Swaths of the book suffer from a compulsion to pump every paragraph full of clever metaphors that scream, “Look at me!,” cultural allusions that would send Dennis Miller rushing to Wikipedia, and references to classic sci-fi and comic books that show the imprint of Chabon Industries™ as opposed to being rooted in the substance of the story. Consider this typical passage in which an undertaker walks into Brokeland Records:

“In the shade of a wide-brimmed black hat whose vibe wavered between crime boss and Henry Fonda in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ pin-striped gray-on-charcoal three-piece, black wing tips shined till they shed a perceptible halo, Chan Flowers came into the store. Slid himself through the front door, ineluctable as a final notice from the county. Straight-backed, barrel-chested, bowlegged. A model of probity, a steady hand to reassure the grieving, a sober man — a grave man — solid as the pillar of a tomb. A good dose of gangster to the hat to let you know the councilman played his politics old-school, with a shovel in the dark of the moon. Plus that touch of Tombstone, of Gothic western undertaker, like maybe sometimes when the moon was full and Flowers & Sons stood empty and dark but for the vigil lights, Chan Flowers might up and straddle a coffin, ride it like a bronco.”

Does that verbal and cultural dexterity make your heart soar? Or do you find yourself wishing you had a piece of literary kryptonite to sap some of this manic energy? There’s much to enjoy here, but in some sections I felt alternately panicked and bored, glancing ahead, trying to connect a subject to a verb, struggling to catch the sense of the sentence like a man reaching for the railing in a dark stairwell.

I wish I weren’t so conflicted about recommending this novel. I love its sensitive and comic treatment of parenthood. Its exploration of the tensions between whites and blacks, between commercialism and nostalgia, between our dreams and our responsibilities is wonderful. But “Telegraph Avenue” often feels as though it requires more labor than it deserves.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles. At 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 30, Chabon will be at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax as part of the Fall for the Book festival.

TELEGRAPH AVENUE

By Michael Chabon

Harper. 468 pp. $27.99

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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