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.