Telegraph Avenue is the great American novel we’ve been waiting for. Generous, imaginative, funny, moving, thrilling, humane, triumphant, it is Michael Chabon’s most dazzling book yet. 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, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart – half tavern, half temple – stands Brokeland. When ex–NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, 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 fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.
Is this the….sixth? Seventh? Michael Chabon book I’ve read? Needless to say, I’m obsessed.
An intimate epic, a NorCal Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz and pulsing with a virtuosic, pyrotechnical style all its own, Telegraph Avenue is the great American novel we’ve been waiting for. Generous, imaginative, funny, moving, thrilling, humane, triumphant, it is Michael Chabon’s most dazzling book yet.
This one had some similar qualities to Yiddish Policemen’s Union in that it took a fair bit to get into. However, once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down.
As usual, TA features some Jewish characters, but this book also hones in on the African-American community. A lot of this book is focused on the relationships between people and how complicated they can be, kung-fu, the LGBTQ+ community, midwifery, and records.
The main characters are Nat, Archy, Aviva, Gwen, Julie, and Titus. Of course, there are some other characters, but I’d rather not spoil anything for you guys. Nat and Archy are best pals—one white, one black–who run a record store together, but a big man, Gibson Goode, is giving them a run for their money–literally. This is entangled in a variety of crimes and intrigue centered around Telegraph Avenue and Brokeland. Aviva and Gwen are their wives, and midwifery partners-in-crime. Of course, racism makes things complicated. And Julie and Titus? Best friends, and sons (in a way) of each couple.
These families are both tightly woven and split apart throughout the book, in many different points. Chabon has a talent for tackling difficult issues by framing them through the lens of his characters and their perspectives. All of the characters are complicated, but you get the idea that they’re all good people and that everything will work out. Sure, they make dubious decisions, but it’s worth it.
This book is quite large, and reading it is a journey. I find it lighter than some of his other books, though–the writing is less fevered, much like Moonlight. My favorite character by far was Julie–a little Jewish boy with a love for skateboarding and his 8-track player. He was sweet and grew a lot over the book, along with Titus. They stole the show.
Anyways, as usual, I one hundred percent recommend Chabon to everyone.