Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon me first say that Telegraph Avenue (Harper Collins, 2012) is quite a bit different from the other Chabon novel I've read, namely, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I mean, one is about an alternate universe in which Jews settled in Alaska instead of Israel after the Holocaust and all kinds of weird stuff happens, while the other is about two present-day Oakland families (one white, one black) and their complicated personal, financial, and legal tangles.

And yet, the thread that joins these two novels comes in the form of Chabon's ecstatic prose and living, breathing characters. In Telegraph Avenue, Chabon riffs (oh yes I did drop that musical pun) on the ever-present tension in this world between the "old" and the "new."

 Archy and Nat (black and Jewish, respectively) own a used vinyl records store, while their wives run a midwifery clinic. At the center of the novel is the looming threat of a Walmart-like mega-chain moving into the neighborhood, a chain that sells old and new music (among many other things) that will most certainly drive Brokeland Records out of business. Gwen and Aviva (the midwives) face their own shutdown because of a complicated delivery and subsequent legal action.

Blossoming out of and around these core conflicts are satellite issues of sexual identity, absent parents, crime and blackmail, and wasted opportunities. Chabon's novel is a kaleidescope of desire, memory, regret, and disappointment. But don't let that make you think this is a depressing novel. It's nothing of the kind. Despite all the arguments and the anger, the characters take desperate leaps into the unknown in order to make their lives better, or just a little more livable. You can get quite lost in this world, which Chabon brings to life with a dense cloud of references to 1970s pop culture, blaxploitation films, vinyl recordings, and Oakland geography and history. But you'll enjoy getting lost in these pages because Chabon doesn't stop to take a breath until the very end.

Read this if you like: 
  • 19th-century Russian novels with so many characters, you need a chart just to keep them all straight
  • dense layers of pop-culture references
  • family drama
  • Chabon's funky, sometimes experimental prose (yes, there is one sentence in this novel that is 12 pages long)

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