As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there - longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed, between them, more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart - half tavern, half temple - stands Brokeland Records.
When ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in the United States, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples' already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of 15-year-old Julius Jaffe's life.
©2012 Michael Chabon (P)2012 HarperCollins Publishers
Michael Chabon is an author whose reputation certainly precedes him, and I don't know how I've managed to go this long without digging in to his work. Certainly, there is a nagging concern that what you've heard or read is hype, and that the actual experience is going to be a letdown.
This is not the case here. Telegraph Avenue is everything I want in a novel and more. It's a deep and thoughful reflection on the relationships between blacks and whites, the intermeshing of cultures, of gentrification and urban renewal. It's a detailed and insightful memoir of a time and a place, populated with a rich tapestry of characters who are fully drawn and completely believable. There's a compelling story that spins an intricate web around you and makes you care about what happens; that involves you in a complex set of relationships between people and their community and the conflicts between their personal histories, their aspirations, their families, and their limitations. Local politics, social responsibility, Black Panthers, kung fu, environmentalism, aging blaxploitation stars, midwifery, the impossibility of being 14 years old -- it's all there.
And music. Telegraph Avenue pulses with music, both in the many references that become a soundtrack running in your head and in the detailed, lively descriptions of the incredible conflagration of funk, soul, R&B, rock and roll and jazz that bubbled up out of the American cultural melting pot beginning in the Sixties and continuing to this day. If you don't know what a CTI release was, go do some listening. It will add a layer of depth to the experience of this book that is priceless.
Chabon delivers extremely realistic dialog that includes plenty of street slang and Clarke Peters handles the narration of the audiobook with superb attention to the personalities and characterizations. He gives a believable and authentic voice to a wide cast of characters that includes everything from a 14 year old gay white kid to a nonagenarian Chinese woman, and delivers the narrative in a style that is deeply sensitive to cultural and political connotations. His wonderful voice becomes the music of this experience.
But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - J.D. Salinger ^(;,;)^
I lived for several idyllic months during my virgin adulthood in Boulder, Colorado. There was a term often tossed around, at least then, that Boulder was 20 square miles surrounded by reality (I've since heard the same line used for Madison, Austin and Berkeley).
Like Boulder, the real Telegraph Avenue exists in an idealized borderland surrounded by reality that stretches 4.5 miles from downtown Oakland to U.C. Berkeley. On this street you find the restaurants, used clothing shops, street vendors, bookstores, RECORD SHOPS, college students, hipsters, eccentrics, tourists and the homeless. This setting, like Brokeland itself, is in many ways the natural habitat of Chabon. That very setting is both a blessing and a curse in this novel. First, it allows Chabon to do what he does best. He can vamp about people, sing with the language of the street, jump, jive and pirouette with English prose in a way that makes writers' drool with envy. "Telegraph Avenue" is 26,784 sq in (9 in x 6.2 in x 480 pps) surrounded by reality.
The downside is, in "Telegraph Avenue", Chabon gives us (for the most part) almost exactly what we expect. It is a ostinato playground with strong and confident prose riffs, but offers the safety of repetition and the comfort of Nat's call and Archy's response.
But let's just get real. I'm reviewing this novel because I loved it. Because I have been waiting for his book to drop like my young son waits for his favorite balloon magician to go to start blowing and twisting. Last night at 1:00 am, I grabbed the novel, downloaded the audio, and hyper-caffeinated myself for an all night experience that only Chabon can deliver.
Both Chabon's successes and his literary failures grow from the reality that he takes more risks in one sentence than many writers take in one chapter. If I judge him harder than this book deserves, perhaps it is only because his previous novels (Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Yiddish Policeman's Union, etc) have cast such huge, intense literary shadows in my mind. Any future work by Chabon has a helluva fight for recognition or equivalence. Listening to "Telegraph Avenue" I am tempted to believe that even Chabon's farts must sometimes sing when he is walking in Berkeley.
I would be remiss if I didn't also note that Clarke Peters is THE perfect narrator for this novel. His voice is a mixture of $ex, J@ZZ, and stree+ prophet. I do hope this isn't the last book he does. He was one of the best actors in two of the very best shows on TV (the Wire and Treme). Clarke's voice owned this novel and for a night both Chabon and Clarke shared joint ownership of my Brokeland head.
I would recommend this book to all current and future fans of Michael Chabon.
With pitch-perfect narration by the talented Clarke Peters of The Wire and Treme, this book was so entertaining I listened to it twice, immediately. I became attached to the characters and their humorous and relatable foibles and didn't want the book to end. Michael Chabon's books are reliably great, and this one benefits from being told close-to-home by a Berkeley writer.
After a chapter or two, you feel like you feel at home in "Brokeland"--the border between bourgeoise Berkeley and poorer Oakland--with the gentrifiers and the old timers, 70s film stars, vinyl loving nostalgics, lawsuit-happy yuppies, and people trying to walk between these worlds.
The uproariously drunken and messy funeral for the old-timer musician / commie / vinyl collector Mr. Jones was probably the zenith of this wild ride.
I laughed each time I listened.
I hope Clarke Peters records more books :)
I don't think anything could have redeemed this story for me.
It was too difficult for me to distinguish different characters.
Chabon seems so in love with his own words. I completely lost the train of thought by his wordy interludes. I didn't care about any of the characters, and I just wanted the book to end.
Michael Chabon has written, but I should say crafted, a novel that includes the areas of family, friendships, r & b music of the 70's, race relations, and the idea of neighborhood. The stories that he weaves through the novel are fascinating and the interactions of the characters will make this book a Pulitzer contender. I have read several novels by Chabon and this is truly special.
I love listening to Audible books but this novel was so tedious that I had to stop listening. I didn't find any of the characters interesting enough to inspire me to like them, dislike them, or compel me to listen more to learn about them. I'm honestly not sure who this one would appeal to.
The book didn't turn me off to other books in this genre but, as a displaced Californian who thought it would be fun to listen to a story about the Bay Area -- a place where I grew up and could relate to, it sadly failed me. And I found that terribly disappointing.
I thought the performance didnt enhance the book, but maybe that wasnt possible. He gave it a good try, but the plot was lacking.
I didnt find anything in the plot that made me want to continue. If I were playing editor, I would have asked for better character development to inspire some type of feeling from the listener. And a plot that evolved more quickly to draw in the listener. I didn't get either.
I regret writing a negative review, but I've listened to endless titles on Audible, some better or worse than others. This is the only one that I literally had to shut off because I couldn't be drawn in, even after giving it more time than I normally would have. I gave it a big try without successl.
I have great respect for Michael Chabon's intellect, I have to stretch my mental muscles to keep up and that can take away from enjoying his storytelling. I was here in Berkeley, frequenting the renown Telegraph Ave before, during and after the time frame of this story and I was a bit surprised by how fictional he made the setting. It is a street with much personal history for many of us, and he could have drawn on more of the culture even though that seemed to be part of his agenda. Probably a desire for more local nostalgia I was hoping to find.
The reader's performance was smooth and although I couldn't always keep the characters separated, it was done very well.
I'm a huge fan of audiobooks. I've probably listened to well over 200 titles, including some literary works. Having enjoyed other books by Michael Chabon, I started to listen to Telegraph Avenue with the highest expectations, but simply couldn't continue beyond a couple of hours. I'm notsure what the problem was, but I had to abandon the book early on. After a couple of months, I finally picked up the actual book and loved it. It is a brilliant novel, with themes of parents/sons; spouses, partners, race, etc. As some reviewers have noted, it recalls Joyce's Ulysses, at least superficially. It just doesn't work as an audiobook, despite the best efforts of the narrator. So, this is just one of those occasions when one is better advised to skip the audio and read the text. (Note, an article in the Times Sunday Book review from November 2013 also led with this book as a prime example of a title that didn't work in audio format.)
Chabon is a master. It's clear that he is in full command of his craft and he has produced another work of incredible originality with a near perfect mixture of humor, anger, uncertainty, conflict, joy and loss. His deep understanding of the characters and the lives they live is truly astonishing. I find it hard to believe that one author could convey so much truth about music, infidelity, homosexuality, community politics, male friendships, kung-fu and 70's blacksploittion films; my mind is officially boggled. I truly enjoyed this book. From beginning to end. Why four stars instead of five? I'm not really certain, except to say that, when taken in context of his other works, Telegraph Avenue was not my favorite. Although it was up there. If I could give it four and three quarters stars I would.
First Chabon work I haven't loved. Like going to Chez Panisse and being force-fed with delicacies like a pate-bound duck with no chance to savor anything.
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