Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is about a lot of things. It’s about a particular neighborhood — Brokeland, right on the line between Berkeley and Oakland, with all its ethnic and religious and economic and sexual and historical diversity, and everything that implies. It’s about two families, and the way they’ve worked together over the years: the husbands, Archy and Nat, running Brokeland Records, a place to sell used vinyl and a place to honor all that fabulous music, the blues, the jazz, the honky-tonk, sure, but perhaps even more a community resource, a place where people can lean on the counter and find out what’s happening in Brokeland. The wives, Gwen and Aviva, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, midwives catching babies at home with sure hands.
Maybe most of all, though, this book is about men. Don’t misunderstand me — Chabon doesn’t have any trouble writing fully-realized female characters, and in fact I found Gwen’s storyline the most interesting of the book. But from the very beginning of Telegraph Avenue, the focus is on the men: babies, adolescents, grown men, old men, past exploits, deadbeat dads, dead sons, new sons, grandsons. One of the most climactic moments of the book, when Gwen’s baby is born, is interrupted by her husband’s entry into the delivery room:
Then Archy walked into the room in a yachting cap. Stood there gawping at her. He looked a mess, creased, untucked, his hair misshapen. In the instant before his new son tumbled, bawling and purple, into mortality and history, Gwen’s heart was starred like a mirror by a stone. One day the feeling might come to resemble forgiveness, but for now it was only pity, for Archy, for his father and his sons, for all the men of whom he was the heir or the testator, from the Middle Passage, to the sleeper cars of the Union Pacific, to the seat of a fixie back-alleying down Telegraph Avenue in the middle of the night.
Yeah. Sounds realistic that that’s what you’d be thinking about when you’re giving birth.
I don’t want this review to devolve into snark. I have read a lot of Chabon’s work (and I think you could say pretty generously that it’s all essentially about men, with the addition of some good women characters), and I’ve at least liked and sometimes loved every book. This book was good — sometimes weird, like the entire 11-page chapter that was all one sentence, supposed to imitate the flight of an escaped parrot, even though the parrot didn’t escape until halfway through the chapter — but good. The prose sometimes shaded toward the purple, but when you’re dealing with people who routinely wear leisure suits in the early part of the 21st century, and spend their money on basements full of vinyl records, a little grandiosity (or a little bomp and circumstance, as is the name of the funeral band for one of the characters) doesn’t go amiss.
I also enjoyed the way that Chabon doesn’t take easy outs. His characters may have a community store and they may be (sometimes reluctantly) fighting to keep it in the face of a large chain moving in, but it doesn’t make them saints. It doesn’t even make them right. Sometimes it makes them jerks. Some of his characters have a terrible time apologizing, and while no one should always have to bow and scrape to get by — there are particular implications for women and people of color in that arrangement — it’s wrong for personal relationships. They don’t make decisions well, or sometimes they make them too easily, without all the facts. They don’t forgive. They’re human.
And that’s what makes Chabon worth reading. I still like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay best of all the novels of his I’ve read, but there’s not one I’d dissuade you from. His people are always people, even when he leans pretty heavily on masculine experience. He’s melancholy and funny, probing for ways to show you what people are like, whatever they are like. I recommend Telegraph Avenue for a few enjoyable hours learning more about that.