MICHAEL Chabon’s rich, comic new novel, is a homage to an actual place: the boulevard in Northern California where Oakland – historically an African-American city – aligns with Berkeley, whose bourgeois white inhabitants are, as one character puts it, “liable to invest all their hope of heaven in the taste of an egg laid in the backyard by a heritage-breed chicken”.
by Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, 480pp, £18.99
The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: kung fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Chabon and Tarantino make an unlikely duo; while the latter’s films tend toward gaudy eruptions of violence, Chabon bends Tarantino’s sensibility to a warmhearted novel about fatherhood.
The father (and son) at the centre of the story – which is set in 2004, though in a technological eddy that makes it feel ten years earlier – is one Archy Stallings, a bassist who is African-American and Oakland-raised. With his white best friend, Nat Jaffe, Archy owns a store called Brokeland Records, selling used vinyl on the site of a former barbershop whose old-timers and nostalgics it has inherited. Like many characters in Telegraph Avenue, Archy and Nat belong to “a league of solitary men united in their pursuit of the lost glories of a vanished world”. They are holdouts, unplugged and awaiting, in a state of dread, what Archy calls “the great wave of late-modern capitalism”.
Archy also dreads fatherhood. At the novel’s start, Gwen, his pregnant wife, catches him cheating on her, setting in motion one of several parenting plots that converge around Archy like a swarm of angry wasps, His own feckless, absentee father, Luther Stallings, a onetime blaxploitation star finally clean after years of drug abuse, arrives in town scheming about a comeback underwritten by his blackmail of a shady local politician over their shared Panther history. Archy’s illegitimate 14-year-old son, Titus, whose existence he’s barely registered, also washes up in Oakland, and falls into a sexual relationship with Nat’s beloved gay teenage son, Julius. And Archy’s surrogate father, an elderly organ player, is crushed to death under his keyboard while trying to heft it for a political gig starring state senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
As if all of that weren’t enough, Gwen, a midwife in business with Nat’s wife, explodes at a racist doctor, causing a chain of repercussions. And Brokeland Records finds itself in the path of the encroaching empire of Gibson Goode, a former NFL star who plans to break ground on a slick new mall (with a music store selling vinyl) two blocks away.
There are pathos and suspense in these tribulations, but the world of Telegraph Avenue is safe, symmetrical and comic. Much of its wit is down to Chabon’s astonishing prose. I don’t just mean the showy bits: a 12-page sentence that includes the observations of an escaped parrot; or the lovely, credible scene from Obama’s point of view. I mean the offhand brilliance that happens everywhere: a woman’s sun-tanned shins “shining like bells in a horn section.” Titus’s memories, “a scatter of images caught like butterflies in the grille of his mind.” Chabon has always struck me as a joyful writer – his own pleasure and curiosity are part of the reading experience. This time, his curiosity may surpass the reader’s; Telegraph Avenue feels larded with digressions that hamper the complicated plot. It’s a testament to Archy’s magnetism, and the buoyancy of Chabon’s material, that the plot lifts off despite this extra weight. And when, in its moving final pages, the internet is fully invoked, the arrival feels hopeful in a way that already seems nostalgic. The teenage boys continue their defunct relationship as made-up characters online, where race, gender and sexual orientation are not burdens, but choices. For Archy and Nat, online commerce offers the chance to reach vinyl-record lovers around the globe who are eager to acquire (as a vintage card seller puts it) “what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you.”
It isn’t the fetishists who find their losses restored in Telegraph Avenue, but the alienated fathers and sons: Archy and the father who abandoned him; Archy and the son he abandoned along with his newborn son, whose experience of fatherhood still hangs in the balance. In the end, Chabon’s novel suggests, what has the power to fill the void inside us isn’t artifacts, but paternity. In fact, it may have been Dad who was missing in the first place.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east