Michael Chabon’s latest novel is set in Oakland, California, around two men who run a record store. The book is a love letter to records, terrible C-list action flicks and cars with names like Toronado. The principal songs on a soundtrack of Telegraph Avenue would be titled “Nostalgia” and “Anachronisms.” The cadence and diction are redolent of jazz and purple suits, and the atmosphere is pitch-perfect for the elegiac character dramas unfolding with an undertone of blues. It is a shock to remember that the novel is taking place in 2004.
But that is where the heart of the story lies – in the inability of the characters to let go of the past and move on. The characters are by far the most impressive aspect of the novel. The relationships between any two of the main players, from business partners to spouses to fathers and sons are all complex and believable. Even the minor characters such as a parrot who mimics a keyboard or the briefest of guest appearances by Barack Obama manage to steal the spotlight.
The main two protagonists are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, friends and co-owners of Brokeland Records. The story is structured around a megastore being built down the street that will effectively run them out of business. This representation of contemporary times encroaches on the pair’s nostalgic enterprise. Combatting the new store is a metaphor for their own stalwart personalities as well as a business necessity. This protest takes the partners on a journey through their own insecurities and challenges them to decide whether to let go or adapt to the world they find themselves living in. Along the way they drag their families through a similar form of character development. Every character has something they cannot release from its place in the past, and it is the success or failure of this struggle which determines character growth.
Because the cast is so diverse and relatively numerous, not every character gets the same amount of attention. But this is a minor complaint since every person has a distinctive voice. When the focus shifts, the reader misses the people that just left and cannot wait for them to return into the narrator’s third person perspective spotlight.
Chabon manages to write in a style which emulates a song of funk and blues. In the first few pages he dips the book into a mood that leaves the taste of saxophones on the reader’s tongue. Readers can almost hear the squeaking of the shoes which enter a room a second ahead of the man who is entering the room.
The metaphors are quirky, brilliant and they rarely fail, even though they are as numerous in the novel as notes are in a song. This latter ubiquity is a double-edged sword. It maintains a skillfully controlled undertone throughout the novel, but it becomes dulled by its consistency, like letting eyes adjust from the darkness to a bright light.
If one of Telegraph Avenue’s largest flaws is being too bright and inherently faithful to setting an appropriate atmosphere, then it is clearly doing something right. The book hits all the right beats with its themes and characters and leaves the reader wanting more with each page.
Each page holds a new and refreshing combination of language in its metaphors and descriptions. It is about letting go of the memorabilia and clinging to the meanings they bestow, dealing with the past and facing the present and setting the needle down on the deepest, funkiest groove.