From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
Some writers have a style so alive that they make writing seem like the easiest, most enjoyable profession in the world. It’s a false impression, to be sure; nevertheless, these authors help keep alive the idea that reading books remains a valuable (and vibrant) form of entertainment.
Michael Chabon–best known for his dazzling magnum opus about the golden age of comic books, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”–definitely falls into this hallowed pantheon. His fiction, even when it’s not particularly memorable (case in point: the serialized novel “The Gentlemen of the Road”), bursts with a shameless joy of telling a good story.
Chabon’s latest novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” is both. It’s written with lengthy sentences packed with clauses and sub clauses — so yes, you actually have to pay attention while reading. But by giving yourself over to this (I shudder to use the description) “traditional” style of writing, you’ll come across breathtaking passages and pages that pulse with life.
Adapted from a failed plan for a Chabon-created television show, the novel concerns the possible last days of a used record store in Oakland, California in 2004. Brokeland Records, managed by longtime friends Archie Stallings and Nat Jaffe, is under threat of extinction due to the impending construction of a massive megastore spearheaded by a former NFL wunderkind named Gibson Goode (whom Chabon deliciously paints as a smooth-talking “villain” straight out of a Bond story, complete with his own zeppelin).
At the same time, their respective spouses, Gwen and Aviva, find their midwifery practice under attack after a troubled birth leads to the possibility of a lawsuit. The third pairing involves Nat’s gay son, Julie (from Julius) and his adventures in adolescence with Titus who, get this, is actually Archie’s long-lost son.
The drama comes from the way these characters collide with one another; a drama rooted in the dilemma of urban development, the comforting stasis of nostalgia, race relations between black and white, and the environs of Oakland and Berkeley. Chabon paints the area as a whirlwind of races, ethnicities, tastes and lifestyles–the American melting pot in action. Then there are the heavy pop cultural references; so heavy at times that they threaten to bury the story. “Telegraph Avenue” is a veritable grab bag of cultural homages, hat tips, high fives and winks to everything from 70s funk and blaxsploitation films to Bruce Lee, “Star Wars”, and Quentin Tarantino.
It may come with a conclusion that feels rushed compared to the sprawl of the rest of the novel (numerous loose ends are simply tied up through dialogue) and a cringe-worthy cameo by then-senatorial candidate Barack Obama (a minor gripe, to be sure).
But one thing is for sure: “Telegraph Avenue” is damn fun to read.