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Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

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If Michael Chabon set out to evoke the feel of a Quentin Tarantino movie in his latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, he succeeded. Like many of Tarantino’s films, Telegraph Avenue is set in a hybridized, mythical California (Oakland instead of Los Angeles) that is clearly present-day but has one foot planted in livelier, brighter, louder times — the 1970s of our nostalgia.

The story centers around Archy, co-owner of a used-record store, whose life is suddenly unraveling. Oakland’s most famous homeboy, ex-pro football player Gibson Goode, is planning to open a media mega-store just a few blocks away, which will surely put Archy’s record store out of business. Archy’s very pregnant wife, Gwen, has found out that he is cheating on her and is considering giving up her career as a midwife. His no-good father, a former blaxploitation star named Luther, has turned up like a bad penny, clearly in some kind of trouble. And his teenage son by an ex-girlfriend, whom Archy has never met, has also shown up unexpectedly, needing a place to live.

Chabon plays out each scene meticulously, combining convoluted sentences with evocative images to give the novel a cinematic feel, as if projected on a movie screen inside the reader’s head. And he loads on the allusions, not just to Tarantino’s films, but to the kung-fu and blaxploitation movies that inspired them, to the funk, jazz, and blues that comprise the novel’s soundtrack, as well as comic books, science fiction, and leisure suits. Chabon’s pop culture vocabulary is vast, and many readers may not feel like they can keep up with the torrent of cultural references he makes.

Chabon is a talented writer, but the story that unfolds in Telegraph Avenue winds up being a little disappointing, given the skill employed in telling it. The ending feels too pat, all the loose ends neatly tied up with some convenient symbolism. In comparison to Chabon’s earlier achievements—his Pulitzer Prize-winning homage to comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or his experiment in the unusual sub-genre of alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen’s UnionTelegraph Avenue is going to suffer.

But if you just want to watch the man write, Telegraph Avenue is well worth your time. Chabon’s passion for this place, this time and, above all, these people can be felt in every word.

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  • Mitch Roper

    I would add that the setting for this book is crucial. If you live or have lived in that area, the seemingly implausible storyline will probably ring a bit more true for the reader.

  • Igor

    One might be better off, to understand the area, by reading Jennifer Stones “Telegraph, Then”, published about 20 years ago. There’s a rumor she’s writing “Telegraph, Now”.