Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

10756240A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike.

What it’s about: 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 a livelier, brighter, louder time — the 1970s of our nostalgia.

Unlike a Tarantino plot, though, Chabon’s novel doesn’t depict a world of violence, betrayals and revenge. The story ambles along, following a set of characters who are just trying to muddle through their rather ordinary lives. And if the characters at times try to delude themselves that they are akin to one of Tarantino’s badasses, Chabon doesn’t allow them their delusion for long. He can’t resist pulling back the curtain and revealing that his people are just as pathetic and clueless as the rest of us.

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.

Why I liked it: 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, 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. 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.

Who might like it: Readers who enjoy books by Jeffrey Eugenides or Junot Diaz.


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