Michael Chabon Visits Brokeland

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 7 2012 11:22 PM

Archy and Nat’s Last Stand

Michael Chabon’s pop-culture-infatuated novel centers on a threatened used-vinyl store in Oakland.

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Archy is black and mutedly blue. Nat is white and sometimes gray with a mental fog. Chabon’s examination of cross-racial friendships is subtle. His schematic arrangement of his characters’ intertwined lives is not. Archy’s pregnant wife, Gwen, delivers the babies of the East Bay bourgeoisie with Nat’s wife, Aviva, famed as “the Alice Waters of Midwives.” Archy, it transpires, has abandoned a teenaged son who looks uncannily like Luther, and the kid, Titus, befriends Nat’s son, Julius, after they meet at a film class. (Its title: “Sampling as Revenge: Source and Allusion in Kill Bill.”) These parallels and trick mirrors contribute to the book’s odd lightness. Telegraph Avenue is so tidily structured and so often advanced by neat coincidence that—its serious consideration of regret and apology notwithstanding—it resembles a comic production. Does it count as a spoiler to say that the ending, despite its rueful undertone, is unaccountably happy? Archy earns reprieve without redemption, and Chabon, genial and generous as he is, lets most everyone off the hook.

Author Michael Chabon.
Author Michael Chabon.

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.

His prose is as energizing as ever, in part because he’s always willing to try high-risk maneuvers up on the figurative balance beam; as a result, for every eight or nine tingling triumphs of language, there is a nasty fall to the mat. (Here is a baby crowning: “A smear of fluid and hair presented its credentials at this checkpoint, advance man for the imminently arriving ambassadress from afar.”) But Chabon’s missteps are more interesting than many writers’ bon mots, and the loveliness of the whole acts in the service of romancing adolescence, delivering gorgeous reveries for old records and paying homage to the old ways of the old days. The tone of things complicates the metaphorical richness of one character who plays a minor but crucial role—a memorabilia dealer operating an enterprise called Mr. Nostalgia’s Neighborhood.

The book’s naive outlook is at odds with its sophisticated verbal surface. Chabon has often been a softie; here, his chin-up optimism about the human race proves mostly ingratiating and totally unsupportable in light of what we know about real-life humans. His heart bleeds where you might want him to get some bile up; the man is too nice to attempt anything on the order of social satire. This is the opposite of a Tom Wolfe novel; the most Chabon will do is gently tease the local organic elite, describing a birth where the floor of a canyon home is covered in a Frida Kahlo shower curtain. Geography is destiny, Michael Chabon knows. So perhaps the most important phrase in the book comes at the end of the “About the Author” note: “He lives in Berkeley.”

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Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Harper.