Has Michael Chabon finally settled down, traded in his red cape for a pair of comfort-fit jeans? The last time we saw the celebrated hipster, he was chasing bandits around 10th century Khazaria. Before that, he was solving a murder mystery in the Jewish state of Alaska. And his genre-blending, Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, still casts a superhero shadow over American literature.
His new book is a domestic novel about the demands of being a father and running a small business. Instead of a cosmic battle against Nazis, the characters are working through the city council to fight gentrification. Even without spells of Jewish mysticism and Marvel heroics, were racing through the world of Chabon, the Washington-born writer whose sentences are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Whether youll be able to keep up with all those inexhaustible stylistic feats is another matter.
Telegraph Avenue is his tribute to vintage vinyl, those great used-record shops that have mostly spun out of existence. Think Nick Hornbys High Fidelity, digitally remastered in rococo funk. The pages are stacked with albums from Miles Davis On the Corner to Charles Kynards Wa-Tu-Wa-Zui. (The e-book offers music and related video clips.)
The story revolves around efforts to save the Brokeland Records store in a gritty part of Oakland, Calif., a few miles from the home Chabon shares with his wife, Ayelet Waldman. Money is in short supply. Brokeland Records, the church of vinyl, is threatened by a megastore to be built by the fifth-richest black man in America, an all-pro quarterback named Gibson G Bad Goode, who flies around the country in a silver dirigible. G Bads shiny retail complex promises to create hundreds of jobs in a 60,000-square-foot retail mall anchored by a three-story media store specializing in African-American culture with a deep selection of vintage vinyl recordings of jazz, funk, blues, and soul.
The owners of Brokeland Records, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, know theyll have to fight to save their little store from G Bads new mall. Men like Archy and Nat, Chabon explains, would wage wars, found empires, lose their dignity and their fortunes for the sake of vinyl. Their only hope is to dig up zoning complications or generate community opposition, but how exactly does one rally against jobs and new construction in a poor section of town?
Archy, a Gulf War vet, is a philandering black guy whos about to become a father. His business partner, Nat, is a misanthropic white guy. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are partners in their own midwife business. The husbands believe that real and ordinary friendship between black people and white people was possible, but the far more daring move is Chabons willingness to shake up the politely segregated world of literary fiction. He not only fills his novel with black characters but also gives them prominence over the white ones.
From these two couples, Chabon quickly expands his story into ever-greater complexity. The record store draws in a colorful collection of regulars, gangsters, black-acting white men, local politicians some outrageously dressed in vintage leisure suits that flamed into wild pseudo-Aztec embroidery and even a wisecracking parrot.
The novels most compelling storyline and its most dramatic incident involves Gwens responsibility for a home birth that goes wrong. Accusations against her get tangled up in racial slurs and the old antagonism between doctors and midwives. Theres a rich mother lode of issues involving race, class and medicine.
Fans whove been waiting since 2007 for another novel from Chabon might be justified in feeling that weve got a bit too much this time. Yes, its witty and compassionate and full of more linguistic derring-do than any other writer in America could carry off. But despite Chabons dazzling brilliance as a stylist, huge sections of Telegraph Avenue read like theyve been written by a man being paid by the word who has a balloon mortgage due. The exuberant flights of Kavalier & Clay seem freighted here with excess. The stunts arent the only problem like Sen. Barack Obamas weird cameo or the single sentence that pants along for 12 pages. The oppressive verbiage these characters endure from this narrator make them sound as though theyre trudging through syrup. Almost anything in the story can set off a vast inventory of rhetorical knickknacks what Chabon refers to in one too-revealing phrase as irritable detail.
Swaths of the book suffer from a compulsion to pump every paragraph full of clever metaphors that scream, Look at me!, cultural allusions that would send Dennis Miller rushing to Wikipedia, and references to classic sci-fi and comic books that show the imprint of Chabon Industries as opposed to being rooted in the substance of the story.
Theres much to enjoy here, but in some sections I felt alternately panicked and bored, glancing ahead, trying to connect a subject to a verb, struggling to catch the sense of the sentence like a man reaching for the railing in a dark stairwell.
I wish I werent so conflicted about this novel. I love its sensitive and comic treatment of parenthood. Its exploration of the tensions between whites and blacks, between commercialism and nostalgia, between our dreams and our responsibilities is wonderful. But Telegraph Avenue often feels as though it requires more labor than it deserves.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.