Three quarters into Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, one of his broken-down characters proclaims, “Lots of bad things happen once you start to get old.” It’s not quite as profound like the other chunks of wisdom Chabon scatters across his book but its basic, eleven-word grip hovers above the characters heads like a godforsaken slogan written in Dayglo colors. Chabon, who previously won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, splits this realization into the two halves of his story: one about fatherhood and the other about professional struggle.
Chabon builds Telegraph Avenue as a sprawling view of pre-Obama America. It’s 2004 in the titular NoCal avenue (which connects Berkeley and Oakland) and Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings find themselves in a battle against retail giant Dogpile, which threatens to eat up their independent vinyl record store, Brokeland Records. Their wives are also having a hard time as birth partners and will soon descend into some sort of professional limbo after birthing hiccup with one of their clients. These characters will soon hang out with then Senator Obama in one of his political fund raising gigs in Berkeley. His cameo sets off the signifier for change—something that will be faced with a good amount of reluctance and opposition.
Much of what Chabon mines here is the stuff of Obama’s promised wave of change: racial dynamics (Nat is Jewish and Archy is black), health care, corporate sleaze versus small businesses, communal development, and homosexuality. There’s even a little bit of immigration tucked here and there. Chabon frames all this in a Blaxploitation perspective, via Archy’s dad Luther who used to be a B-movie action star. He occasionally lapses into a mixtape of the African-American history, jazz and soul worship, violent outbursts, and the existential state that we share with our collectibles, mimicking the filmic stylishness and attribution of Quentin Tarantino, whose work figures widely in the book.
Telegraph Avenue towers with ambition. It hints at an exercise of making the new Great American Novel that approximates the socio-political climate of the era, an impression that is reinforced with each giddy reception of the book. Heavily immersive passages (watch out for the one-sentence chapter), pockmarked with bursts of obscure references may sometimes mar the reading experience but once Chabon unleashes a bevy of swift literary Kung Fu moves, he hooks you in from page to page, crackling with fetishistic brio and sense of direction. It may be a slow burner but Telegraph Avenue reveals itself as an unlikely field guide to pop cultural dreams and easing up into the complexities of adulthood.