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Michael Chabon is an author whose reputation certainly precedes him, and I don't know how I've managed to go this long without digging in to his work. Certainly, there is a nagging concern that what you've heard or read is hype, and that the actual experience is going to be a letdown.
This is not the case here. Telegraph Avenue is everything I want in a novel and more. It's a deep and thoughful reflection on the relationships between blacks and whites, the intermeshing of cultures, of gentrification and urban renewal. It's a detailed and insightful memoir of a time and a place, populated with a rich tapestry of characters who are fully drawn and completely believable. There's a compelling story that spins an intricate web around you and makes you care about what happens; that involves you in a complex set of relationships between people and their community and the conflicts between their personal histories, their aspirations, their families, and their limitations. Local politics, social responsibility, Black Panthers, kung fu, environmentalism, aging blaxploitation stars, midwifery, the impossibility of being 14 years old -- it's all there.
And music. Telegraph Avenue pulses with music, both in the many references that become a soundtrack running in your head and in the detailed, lively descriptions of the incredible conflagration of funk, soul, R&B, rock and roll and jazz that bubbled up out of the American cultural melting pot beginning in the Sixties and continuing to this day. If you don't know what a CTI release was, go do some listening. It will add a layer of depth to the experience of this book that is priceless.
Chabon delivers extremely realistic dialog that includes plenty of street slang and Clarke Peters handles the narration of the audiobook with superb attention to the personalities and characterizations. He gives a believable and authentic voice to a wide cast of characters that includes everything from a 14 year old gay white kid to a nonagenarian Chinese woman, and delivers the narrative in a style that is deeply sensitive to cultural and political connotations. His wonderful voice becomes the music of this experience.
16 of 16 people found this review helpful
I lived for several idyllic months during my virgin adulthood in Boulder, Colorado. There was a term often tossed around, at least then, that Boulder was 20 square miles surrounded by reality (I've since heard the same line used for Madison, Austin and Berkeley).
Like Boulder, the real Telegraph Avenue exists in an idealized borderland surrounded by reality that stretches 4.5 miles from downtown Oakland to U.C. Berkeley. On this street you find the restaurants, used clothing shops, street vendors, bookstores, RECORD SHOPS, college students, hipsters, eccentrics, tourists and the homeless. This setting, like Brokeland itself, is in many ways the natural habitat of Chabon. That very setting is both a blessing and a curse in this novel. First, it allows Chabon to do what he does best. He can vamp about people, sing with the language of the street, jump, jive and pirouette with English prose in a way that makes writers' drool with envy. "Telegraph Avenue" is 26,784 sq in (9 in x 6.2 in x 480 pps) surrounded by reality.
The downside is, in "Telegraph Avenue", Chabon gives us (for the most part) almost exactly what we expect. It is a ostinato playground with strong and confident prose riffs, but offers the safety of repetition and the comfort of Nat's call and Archy's response.
But let's just get real. I'm reviewing this novel because I loved it. Because I have been waiting for his book to drop like my young son waits for his favorite balloon magician to go to start blowing and twisting. Last night at 1:00 am, I grabbed the novel, downloaded the audio, and hyper-caffeinated myself for an all night experience that only Chabon can deliver.
Both Chabon's successes and his literary failures grow from the reality that he takes more risks in one sentence than many writers take in one chapter. If I judge him harder than this book deserves, perhaps it is only because his previous novels (Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Yiddish Policeman's Union, etc) have cast such huge, intense literary shadows in my mind. Any future work by Chabon has a helluva fight for recognition or equivalence. Listening to "Telegraph Avenue" I am tempted to believe that even Chabon's farts must sometimes sing when he is walking in Berkeley.
I would be remiss if I didn't also note that Clarke Peters is THE perfect narrator for this novel. His voice is a mixture of $ex, J@ZZ, and stree+ prophet. I do hope this isn't the last book he does. He was one of the best actors in two of the very best shows on TV (the Wire and Treme). Clarke's voice owned this novel and for a night both Chabon and Clarke shared joint ownership of my Brokeland head.
72 of 77 people found this review helpful