Telegraph Avenue. Michael Chabon. Harper Perennial, Toronto. 2012. F; 3/14
America! I feel very fortunate to have been able to enjoy its magnitude, complexity, dream, wonderful cities, and its literature, but also to observe its decline, all comfortably in or returning to the illusory safety of my home forty miles or so to the north.
I’ve been a Chabon fan since discovering Kavalier and Klay many years ago, but I think my favourite of his so far (including this one) is Wonder Boys. It’s enthusiastic escape into the imagination I like, and that story does it with its feet on credible soil unlike some of his later novels. Some commentators — and it’s not hard to imagine the author — see this Oakland California tale as his Great American Novel. David Foster Wallace Michael Chabon isn’t, although there are similarities. But I find a lot to like in Telegraph Avenue, and I wonder which aspects of this book the writer thinks are the best. I suspect we would differ on that score.
Archy and Nat run a secondhand record store and they (black and white respectively) are pitched as Oakland salt of the earth funk-jazz enthusiasts, threatened by a hugely wealthy ex-baseball star who aims to crush them under a proposed shopping center. Their wives work together as midwives, Gwen (married to Archy) is herself pregnant, and gets into a very convincing healthcare entitlement confrontation with an arrogant little racist obstetrician, over a home birth gone wrong. Nat’s son Julius (“Julie”) who is discovering he’s gay at age 14 connects up with a little-bit older strong-silent black kid who turns out to be Archy’s long-lost first born.
There is no dearth of plot elements. We get plenty of local politics, a historic murder, blackmail, ruined dreams involving Archy’s former moviestar dad trying to make a comeback, the conflicted teenage gay couple, and Archy’s marriage teetering on collapse.
The opening scene in the record store seems to be Micheal Chabon sketching a cartoon of the male American mystique and right away I think I smell disingenuousness. All this big black guy/cowboy/jazz aficionado barbershop banter complete with a parrot on one man’s shoulder feels off key to me, screwballed at us with the author’s most convoluted figurative virtuosity, packed tight with dozens of obscure 1970s music references. The writing is virtuous: inexhaustably various, original, usually joyously fun and sometimes hilarious. There is something deliciously self-parodying in a later section that consists of a 12-page sentence. But the backroom of the vinyl shop ringing with linguistic soul music isn’t, I don’t think, where Micheal Chabon feels entirely at home. The guys in the store posing with wild west pseudo-formality for me don’t amount to credible human beings, and I come away with the disturbing impression of American men wasting creativity on vulgar and a bit silly projects which are doomed to failure.
Certain special scenes rescue this story for me from this kind of dreary nostalgia and unconvincing preoccupation with kitschy collectibles. First, my Canadian ear picks up on specific chord progressions that I have an intuition Americans can’t resist, and I don’t blame them. It really is part of the heart and soul of their world. Black dignity expressed as high professional success (Harvard Medical School, Washington lawyers…) and a beautifully-rendered cameo of Barack Obama commenting to Gwen on the jazz her husband and his group are playing on the back patio of a rich supporter’s home. The state senator president-to-be is instinctively charming, intuitive, musical, and kind. His surprise appearance reminds me of the magical arrival of the great father surgeon in Cutting for Stone. But that kind of lordly paternity is not what Archy and Nat need to rescue them from lacking credible imaginative life.
However, all the overwrought snazzy jazz language and references that swirl around these two guys and their condemned record store evaporates in moments like the Obama cameo. The writing seems to turn transparent and something tells me that the author is at home in those scenes himself. Pregnant Gwen magnificently stands up to the arrogant doctor in her hospital hearing. And not to overload my own metaphor I hear in that scene too a completely different and much more convincing kind of American music: a John Philip Sousa brass marching band some distance away down on the field, half the crowd on its feet cheering and the rest of them just quietly loving it. Of course we can’t know whether Micheal Chabon is consciously denigrating male America’s collapse into drivel and giving us to understand what (in his opinion) real redemptive sentiment sounds like. But that’s the kind of harmony I hear.
Those emotionally powerful experiences breathe life into certain characters otherwise for me somehow lacking dramatic conviction. Chabon’s Archy and Nat seem fragmented. I have trouble believing the author would be really comfortable with either of them. With Gwen for example there’s no such problem.
And in the end although the theme of father and son comes at us as dominant, the men peter out into nostalgic compromise and mediocrity and it’s their wives on whom we must pin our hopes for creativity, real emotion, and the future.
Not enough to win another Pulitzer prize for this very entertaining and talented writer. Also not I would say quite enough to save America. 8.1/8.6