Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Style is often called upon to compensate for a lack of substance. In Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, style methodically drowns out substance with unrelenting, trivia-heavy riffs on music, a broad selection of quotes and scenes from a pair of fictitious blaxploitation films, admittedly amusing banter between characters and inventive yet painfully long descriptions of insignificant minutiae. Serious subjects course through this nearly 500-page novel, but they rarely congeal into solid themes.
The loosely structured (main) plot revolves around a business venture undertaken in 2004 by NFL star-turned-entrepreneur Gibson Goode, “president and chairman of Dogpile Recordings, Dogpile Films, head of the Goode Foundation, and the fifth richest black man in America.”
Goode wants to open a giant mall (a Dogpile “Thang”) on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, Calif. Such a project would bankrupt several small, independent businesses nearby, including Brokeland Records—with its unparalleled jazz collection—owned and operated by Archy Stallings (black) and his best friend Nat Jaffe (Jewish). Goode’s endeavor frames the tale, coming into play at its beginning and end, Chabon choosing to fill the middle with a plethora of subplots. These mini-stories—one of which includes a cameo by then-Senator Barack Obama—prove entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking, but they also leave the book with an unfocused, meandering feel.
While he and Nat struggle to squeeze money out of vinyl in the early 21st century, Archy must also contend with other worries. His pregnant wife is angry over his infidelity and her troubles at work. His estranged father finds himself in trouble (again). And a son of whom he was only vaguely aware suddenly appears on the scene.
The subplots, though mostly linked to Archy, do not revolve around him, and they feature their own dynamics. Archy’s wife Gwen shares top billing with Nat’s spouse Aviva in their little saga, dealing largely with challenges they face as midwives facilitating home births. We meet Archy’s father Luther, star of long-forgotten blaxploitation and kung fu flicks, as an accomplice to a crime in an extended sequence set in 1973. Now, apparently trying to blackmail his former partner, a funeral home owner as well as a city councilman, Luther carries on a volatile relationship with old co-star and flame Valletta Moore.
Sections with Titus, Archy’s 14-year-old son, feature Titus’s friendship with Nat’s son Julie (Julius), who’s about the same age. Julie is almost certainly gay and smitten with Titus, but Titus leans strongly toward heterosexuality—though this does not interfere with his “accepting every last note and coin of Julie’s virginity.”
If all that plotting weren’t enough, Chabon spins in an important subplot on aging organ player Randall “Cochise” Jones, a father figure to Archy who seems to have given him and Nat the name for their store. “Mr. Jones was … as far as Archy knew, the first person to use the term Brokeland, to describe this neighborhood, the ragged faults where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted.”
We find Chabon’s well-known flair for language (recall the Yiddish cadence and expressions in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) on full display in Telegraph Avenue. In a risky move that the author pulls off with confidence, he renders much of the dialogue in a way that marks its speakers as urban African-Americans. The only quibble one might have? Chabon, in what may reflect a politically correct desire to balance coarseness with a measure of refinement—something he does not feel compelled to do with his white protagonists—lets characters flirt with grandiloquence. This can feel incongruent—except in the case of Chandler Flowers (the undertaker whom Archy’s father blackmails). Flowers’s pomposity is very much a part of his persona.
Chabon’s descriptions of physical appearance can be very funny. At one point, he refers to a guy with a “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” And he shows a gift for pathos, as in this passage:
“The little boy had wandered away from his mother, tacking across the grass toward the play structure. His mother watched him go, proud, tickled, unaware that every time they toddled away from you, they came back a little different, ten seconds older and nearer to the day when they left you for good. Pearl divers in training, staying under a few seconds longer every time."
Unfortunately, almost as many instances of exasperatingly convoluted verbal gyrations wander up to us. Some sentences simply run too long. (In a gimmicky instance of this, Part III of the novel consists, in its entirety, of a 12-page sentence.) Chabon clearly tries to make his writing fast-paced, infusing it with wit and action, but too often he clutters his sentences and renders them cumbersome. A notable example comes from a scene in which Archy, carrying a picture frame he intends to hang on the wall, walks into Brokeland Records. Archy is surprised to see that Nat has gathered several denizens of the neighborhood for a parley on how best to confront the Dogpile Thang looming on the horizon:
“Nat noted the passage across his friend’s wide, mild features of what appeared to be genuine distress. Eager to ascribe that painful sight to anything other than the fact that, in an access of hypomania, he had convened – without consulting anyone, in the middle of a ‘transitional’ neighborhood in a city that was largely black and poor and hungry for the kind of pride-instilling economic gesture that the construction of a Dogpile Thang represented, however gestural and beneficial only to Our Beloved Corporate Overlords it might turn out to be – this motley gathering of freaky Caucasians united, to hazard a guess, only by a reflexive willingness if not a compulsion to oppose pretty much anything new that came along, especially if it promised to be big and bright and bangin,; in the process, creating and abandoning an unholy mess in his own kitchen, a mess that, his rapidly cycling brain chemistry began to whisper to him, was probably a metaphor, a prophecy of how this whole thing was going to turn out; hoping to forestall this realization, Nat sought explanation for Archy’s evident dismay in the picture frame.”
Call it flabbiness—but it’s not Chabon’s most significant shortcoming. We discover as much at moments when his prose proves scintillating but fails to provide the story with ballast. Evocative description, after all, does not necessarily make for substance.
To be sure, Chabon grazes important issues. Troubled father-son relationships. The difference between homosexual tendencies and full-fledged homosexuality. These two subjects are perennial favorites in which Chabon has long demonstrated an interest.
But they deserve deeper insights from a talented writer, as do the other heavy subjects here. The novel touches on gentrification, anachronism’s encroachment on midwifery, the place of whites and others in a city where blacks constitute a plurality, and the way the blaxploitation genre enhanced the self-esteem of a generation of African-Americans even as it traded in stereotypes. Except midwifery, Chabon doesn’t really plunge into any of these topics.
All this makes Telegraph Avenue, in the end, not much more than a slice-of-life piece. It’s a pretty juicy slice, to be sure. We sit down to a rich assortment of socio-economic issues seasoned with generous sprinklings of humor and dashes of nostalgia. But Chabon only nibbles at the edges. The result tantalizes but ultimately disappoints.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut, Lebanon.