‘Lethem by way of Pelecanos’ – Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

The first characters we meet in Michael Chabon’s latest book slip by temporarily unnamed, a white boy riding a skateboard and a black boy pedalling a brakeless bike amid a ‘[h]iss of tyres’ and a ‘[g][ranular unravelling of skateboard wheels against asphalt’. Later we learn that these two kids belong to the four adults around whom much of Telegraph Ave revolves – Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, a pair of guys who own a floundering vinyl exchange called Brokeland Records, and their wives, Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks, who also run a business, albeit of a different kind, as midwives – but their appearance at the very beginning of the book strikes an interesting note of similarity with Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and it’s a note that goes on being struck throughout the novel.

Nat and Archy are a complement, in a way, just as Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay were in The Amazing Adventures of, Nat with a history of mild mental illness, a tendency towards irrational mood swings and a deeply felt sense of the importance of preserving that which is in danger of being lost, Archy more chipper but no less flawed, given to dalliances, secrets, as much a product of his upbringing as a driver of damage to those around him; but Telegraph Ave is not The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Telegraph Ave is bigger and baggier and its centre is harder to locate. Yes, there is a threat to the future of Brokeland Records in the shape of ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode who plans to open a branded mega-mall known as a ‘Dogpile’ including a vast vinyl emporium that will surely wipe Brokeland from the map which in turn draws in a decades previous exploit involving Archy’s father, a briefly celebrated kung fu icon known as Luther Stallings who is these days, a former junkie, hiding out with his co-star from way back when, Valetta Moore, practicing blackmail in order to resurrect his dying fortunes, and Chan Flowers, a local funeral director and city councillor. But there is also a schism of sorts between Aviva and Gwen, driven by the proverbial bad day at the office and involving a short-tempered doctor that threatens to turn their part of the world on its head and a less demonstrative although no less important shard of plot focusing on Nat and Gwen’s kid Julie, who is coming to understand that he is gay, and Titus Joyner, a kid Archy had and for the most part forgot about some fourteen or so years previous, who surfaces as each of the various troubles in Telegraph Ave converge.

It’s a busy novel, then, and a big novel, full of detail (just as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was), Chabon working all out to give space to his voice and flesh to the bones of the action. There is a lively chorus of peripheral characters, ranging from a local musician Cochise Jones who has a parrot that may recall Chabon’s earlier book The Final Solution, even as the slight correlation between Jones and Chabon’s Sherlock Holmes helps to give Jones a sense of wisdom that is more or less implicit in the book (Archy views the man as a sort of father figure who makes up for what he didn’t get from Luther Stalling) to landlord and eventual ‘good helper’ Garnet Singletary who, along with several other regular customers of Brokeland Records come to form a haphazard resistance to Gibson Goode. But even this overstates the case somewhat because, although we might feel like the opposition of Brokeland Records to Dogpile should be the centre of the novel, the topic that draws us back and keeps us turning the pages, it isn’t, entirely. The opposition sits within Telegraph Ave the way that James O Incandenza’s video cartridge sits within Infinite Jest: it’s there but it’s merely a detail, a hook, on which to hang the colour. And Telegraph Ave is full of colour. Undoubtedly, Chabon has ramped up his popular culture – Telegraph Ave is geekier, in that sense, than any of his previous novels – but it also ramps up a sense of local colour, shall we say, that suggests Chabon is channelling George Pelecanos. All of which makes the novel cartoon-like, at times, in danger of comic excess. Listen to this description of Gwen on her way to deliver a baby:

‘Steeled by a lifetime of training in the arts of repression, like Spock battling the septenary mating madness of the pon farr, Gwen had resisted the urges and surges of estrogen and progesterone for each of the first thirty-four weeks of her pregnancy, denying all cravings, battened down tight against hormonal gusts.’

At times, it felt to this reader that Chabon was bringing his powers to bear too often, over-writing elements that could just as easily have hit the cutting room floor, such as the moment when Aviva cooks breakfast for Titus and ‘broke the eggs as if they were the spurious arguments of unworthy adversaries’:

‘With the contempt we reserve for those who fail to deliver on arrant boasts, she watched the bacon shrink in its own fat. She peeled the bubbling pancakes from the griddle and flipped them over with a sense of cutting off a pointless discussion. In the batter, butter milk and baking soda enacted their allegory of her emotional pH.’

Telegraph Ave is, then, a largely comic novel – Chabon is as playful here, in a realistic setting, as he was in The Final Solution and Gentlemen of the Road, as we see the world from the point of view of a parrot and smile wryly at a small cameo from Barrack Obama – but that isn’t all it is. The real story of Telegraph Ave is that hinted at in Manhood for Amateurs, a story of family, the dangers of family, how families shape you, making us all ‘heir to a history of disappointment and betrayal, violence and loss’. The novel feels like Chabon writing at full tilt aiming for his very own Underworld and, if he doesn’t entirely succeed, you can’t blame him for his ambition and hope.

Any Cop?: A capacious book of many pleasures, Telegraph Ave has enough about it to remind us why Chabon retains a place among our favourites.

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