The prospect of a fat new Michael Chabon novel always makes me clear the reading decks for action. Telegraph Avenue sounded especially appealing, with its Bay Area setting, musical subject matter (two of the four main characters are co-owners of a vintage record store), and Chabon’s established track record for skillful yet affectionate mockery of a certain brand of East Bay liberal orthodoxy (see his Manhood for Amateurs, 2009). This one did not disappoint: great characters, a labyrinthine plot to keep them in action, and enough wit to make you want to ration out the chapters, so as not to finish it too fast.
The story has two closely linked families as its main characters, one black, one white. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe have co-owned Brokeland Records for decades; their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are partners in a midwifery practice. Nat and Aviva have a son, Julius, and Gwen and Archy are expecting. Two families with multiple entanglements in every possible direction: what could go wrong? Well, to start with, ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode (aka G Bad) announces plans to build a music megastore in the neighborhood, sure to kill what’s left of Brokeland Records. The offspring of a long-ago affair of Archy’s shows up, and attaches himself to Nat’s son Julius. Mix in Archy’s dad Luther’s shady past and his burning need to revive his career in martial arts/blaxploitation film, and his old-time running buddy, Chan Flowers, owner of Flowers & Sons Funeral Home, who has unfinished business with Luther, factor in an all-black blimp owned by the aforementioned NFL quarterback… and you have sketched out a very rough outline of the tragicomic possibilities.
This book delivered on my almost impossibly high expectations for Michael Chabon. I have a feeling I’ll need to read it a second time in a few years.
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