Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Book Review: "Telegraph Avenue" by Michael Chabon
Archy and Nat are connected by more than just business. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are successful, semi-legendary midwives in their community, delivering babies for the privileged and the downtrodden, until a botched deliveryand Gwen's reaction to the aftermaththreatens both their professional lives and their friendship. The sudden appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy never acknowledged, throws all of their lives in further turmoil, especially 15-year-old Julius Jaffe, Nat and Aviva's son, who falls hard for Titus. And then there's the reappearance of Archy's estranged father, Luther Stallings, a faded blaxploitation movie star with a troubled past, and his long-time girlfriend and co-star, Valletta Moore. Luther wants to make a comeback movie and believes the best way to get funding is by blackmailing his old friend, City Councilman (and successful undertaker) Chan Flowers. But Luther doesn't understand the ripples his actions set in motion.
Telegraph Avenue is a story about all kinds of relationships, and how doubt, insecurity, anger, betrayal, and things left unsaid can eat away at even the most solid foundations. It's a book that explores the power of music and movies, and how the need to save face is often tremendously destructive. It also questions whether bringing change to a community is a good thing or a bad thingare progress and success better than holding on to your dreams?
At nearly 500 pages, this is a weighty book, overstuffed with characters and secondary plots which get difficult to keep track of. Chabon is a master storyteller, and as he has demonstrated in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay as well as The Yiddish Policeman's Union, he likes to keep a number of different narratives going simultaneously. The book is chock-full of pop culture references from the 1970s through the 1990s (Quentin Tarantino comes up quite a bit) and musical references galore.
While you can feel Chabon's strong affection for his characters, I felt like the story could have been a little simpler without sacrificing its power. One sentence runs on for 12 pages, and it felt more like a gimmick than a device to move the narrative further. The appearance of a certain former senator from Illinois seems almost gratuitous, and as the book moves toward its conclusion, it veers into kidnapping, gunplay, even threats of blackmail that I just wanted to skip over.
Michael Chabon is one of the best writers and storytellers of our generation. There's no denying his ability to draw you in and make you care about his characters. I just wish he'd return to the more straightforward style of his early novels, like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, even the magical Summerland instead of feeling like he needs to jam twice the story into one book.