Book Review – Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

Of the three Michael Chabon novels I’ve read (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which won the Pulitzer; The Yiddish Policeman’s Union; and now Telegraph Avenue) I enjoyed Telegraph Avenue the least among them.

Telegraph Avenue weighs in at a whopping 625 pages, which is a big reading committment for one book. An author increases reader expectations tremendously when a book exceeds 500 pages, in my opinion. You expect more of every aspect of the book – the characters, the plot line(s), and the resolution of those plotlines.

The book is about two guys who own an old vinyl-based record store and their families, friends and enemies from the local neighborhood in Oakland, California (next to Berkeley.) One owner of the record shop is Nat, a white Jewish guy; the other is his best friend Archy, a black guy.

Telegraph Avenue has so many characters that I failed to keep most of them straight for the first half of the book, especially the two owners of the shop – our main protagonists! Chabon failed to sufficiently distinguish their personalities from one another and by failing to provide a basic description of the characters.

I kept reading, hoping things would become clearer, but…

Chabon doesn’t tell us Nat is white or that Archy is black directly for the first third of the book and yet, it is one of the most important elements of the story because there is a white/black dynamic running throughout the book.

As a reader, it is tiring to try and remember no less than a dozen main characters, especially when it’s unlikely someone will be able to consume a novel of this size in one sitting. (It took me a month to get through the book.)

Characters include Nat, his wife Aviva and their son Julie … Archy, his 2nd wife Gwen, and Archy’s illegit son Titus, Archy’s father Luther, and Luther’s girlfriend Valetta … and the main guys from the neighborhood Mr. Jones and his parrot Fifty-eight, Mr. Flowers, Mr. Singletary… and I could go on and on just naming characters. That is not a good thing.

There are several plot lines running through the book as well, and I didn’t find them compelling enough. The main plotline is Nat and Archy’s business, their record store, is failing. A guy named Gibson Goode, who used to be from the neighborhood and left to become a famous football star now living in Los Angeles, decides to come back and build a huge record store in the neighborhood.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this if you want to read the book. Gibson Goode never winds up building the record store, and Nat and Archy break up as partners by the end of the book. The lack of tension around this issue in the 600 pages that preceed these events nullify their impact. It isn’t the “payoff” for the reader that it should be given the build up. Other plotlines meet a similar fizzled-out fate.

By way of example, one of the characters, a parrot named Fifty-eight whose interesting idiosyncracies keep us wondering about what he might say, flies away with a strongly implied promise to the reader that the bird will return or its whereabouts known later through several references. This is especially important when the bird’s owner, Mr. Jones, dies. But no, the bird never returns and the bird’s influence on the story is just dropped.

Chabon’s writing has always required a certain patience because of the level of description he provides, but this is also his genius as a writer. When used to build drama, this kind of writing can be exciting and assist the reader in populating the complex world Chabon creates, like the kind you’ll find in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union set in a fictional version of Sitka, Alaska. In Telegraph Avenue I found myself much more impatient with these descriptions because they weren’t adding up to a cohesive whole, and became more of a stylistic distraction – the very last thing you’d want from a really long novel.

To conclude, I would not recommend Telegraph Avenue. It’s bloated at 625 pages, and could have been edited down to create better pacing for the reader. (This novel had “saggy sections.”) It’s characters are too numerous and difficult to tell them apart. Plotlines are not compelling enough given the resolution to many of them (tied too neatly with a bow) at the end of the novel.

If you want to experience the a much better example of the stylistic writing of Michael Chabon, I would recommend the Yiddish Policeman’s Union instead.