A dying breed ... better to go down blazing in flame!
Synopsis of Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: 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.
My two centsIf you've ever gotten close to someone who is aging, who has stories and stories ... and stories to tell, you may want to spend some time with this book.
There's so much I liked about this book. It's a throwback to the age of vinyl and jazz and the blues and old movies. It's about washed up kung fu actors and musicians and remembering the good ol' days. It's about two spunky competent women who are passionate about helping women with home births, a nod to the institution of the midwives of old. It's about family, family history, family loyalties. It's about birth, growing old, death.
Chabon obviously loves his Quentin Tarantino; this book not only repeatedly mentions his films but borrows heavily from the stylized violence, in-your-face storytelling, and highly visual even vulgar quality. It's about living large and what the heck, if it's worth doing, do it in style, do it to the hilt! Let's talk about a washed up actor who is still holding on to his dream of one last film; let's talk about birth, yes, with all glory in referencing the pain, the blood, and the grossness of it all.
There's also a tawdry and sentimental feeling that Chabon dredged out of me. I started getting nostalgic about vinyl. And while I didn't know all the films mentioned, I do know film maker Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, and adore musicals and old school dancing (Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse!)
I was quite in awe with how much Chabon understood each of his characters. I really felt for them; they're real and stripped of any pretense and I felt that I didn't know them superficially. Their relationships are complicated and fraught with history, old hurts, and misunderstandings; their lives are messy. This entire book is about messy lives and revelling in it.
This is an homage to multi-culturalism. Black, white, Indian, Asian, Hispanic, every colour, every race, there is some mention here; just showing that this is the new America, heck it's the new world order. Honestly, I can't even remember how many times Filipino was mentioned (I'm Filipino, so it kind of jumped out at me.) There was no judgement though; it just is.
I think this is a really special book; one that has to be read leisurely, so you can let the words just seep in and stir up emotions and nostalgia. On the other hand, this is a really long book (close to 500 pages!). Add to that there it's so jampacked with references to movies, music, and popular culture that it doesn't lend well to speedreading (nor would I advise you to!). Resist the urge to look up certain things online or you're never going to get through this in a week! (This took me longer to read than I expected!)
Now, this is my first Chabon and I chose to read it because it sounded so eerily like Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, which I so loved. Overall, it didn't disappoint. But in all honesty, I found the beginning a bit heavy having to sort through the multiple story lines and having to sort through characters, their relationships, and whether they were black or white or Hispanic or Asian (because the whole racial profiling thing seemed to be important; come on, wouldn't the name Chan just bring up an Asian man in your mind?). My head hurt. No, really. I actually had to keep notes to remember. But once I'd put all that behind me, I sort of accepted the book and went along for the ride ... only then could I immerse myself in the angst.
Then I got to part III of the book "A Bird of Wide Experience" (pp. 239-250). OMG. If you can believe it, this entire chapter is ... one ... long... sentence. No period anywhere. I checked, believe me. Do I detect inspiration from Jose Saramago? If you have no patience with little (well, long) verbal experiments like this, I recommend you skip this entire part. I kind of skimmed through it because it tired me out. Then it was back to the storyline.
***Verdict: A chunkster of a book that is a book version of a messy, non-holds-barred, visual-fest Tarantino movie. Several storylines intertwine to highlight the angst of passionate living. Those who love popular culture will no doubt eat this up. Those who enjoy a nostalgic road trip will enjoy references to the dying breed of old school actors/musicians/artists and midwives.
Read at your own risk -- the length may put you off. Stick to it, you'll definitely come out alive!
About Michael Chabon
Find out more about Michael at his website and connect with him on Facebook.
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I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.
Paperback: 465 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (September 10, 2013)