Nostalgia avenue

Is ‘Telegraph Avenue’ Michael Chabon’s search for his hippie dream?

Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, CA 521 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, CA 521
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Michael Chabon has set out to create another of his utterly original literary masterpieces and succeeds – and fails – brilliantly, as only he can do.
Readers will remember the Pulitzer Prizewinning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which told the heartbreaking story of Joe Kavalier, who ingeniously escaped Nazi-invaded Prague and made it to New York. Joe Kavalier and his cousin Sammy Clay from Brooklyn forged an unbreakable bond and went on to create a comic book series that drew on their greatest fears and dreams.
Chabon cut out a chunk of his heart to create Joe Kavalier, and the book bristles with Chabon’s tenderness, creativity, nostalgia and sadness about the fate of the Jewish people as the Nazis advanced. His love of language and his intoxication with his own creative powers is evident on every page.
Chabon showed the same inventiveness with the much-acclaimed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Here, he rewrites Jewish history and creates an alternative home for the Jews in Alaska. His narrative explains that this is where Jews settled after Israel lost the war for independence in 1948. The language spoken is mostly Yiddish, and the land that has been given to the Jews is temporary and slated to be returned to the Alaskans shortly.
Again, Chabon’s hyper-articulate, almost obsessive prose shines a piercing light on Jewish persecution and the anxiety it provokes.
He has admitted in interviews that his books always threaten to consume him.
Expectations are always high for any new work by Chabon. His new novel Telegraph Avenue is an ambitious project. Once again, he is attempting to tread new territory, but his compass seems off from the start. The book tells the story of the owners of Brokeland Records, one of them a black man and the other a white Jew, who are up in arms about the mega-store that is moving in nearby, which will threaten their antiquated but charming secondhand record store, a murky combination of business establishment and local hang-out.
It is the California summer of 2004 and Archy is expecting his first child with his wife, Gwen. His partner Nat, who is nominally Jewish, and his wife, Aviva, have a teenage son named Julius who is struggling with confusion about his own developing sexuality.
There is also Luther Stallings, Archy’s deadbeat father, who made his name decades ago starring in “blaxpoitation” movies in the 1970s. These films simultaneously idealized and denigrated the tough, macho black male characters who starred in them; men who spent all their time driving wildly fast cars, dealing drugs, chasing women and getting high.
When you read the opening pages of Telegraph Avenue, you can’t help but wonder what brought Chabon here. It seems like very alien territory. He has attempted to explain the book’s genesis, as well as his own interest in black music and culture, and his genuine concern about the continued strained relationship between blacks and whites in America.
Chabon grew up in Columbia, Maryland, in a planned integrated community during the late 1960s and has fond memories of close childhood friends who were black. For reasons he seems unsure about, that dream of togetherness disappeared and has been replaced with something ugly and disheartening. One senses that he still clings to a vibrant spark of adolescent longing that wishes and believes we could all learn to live and love together.
For Chabon, the hippie dream never really died; it somehow just got misplaced, and this book seems like his attempt to find it.
While writing the novel, he found himself drawn to an old, run-down secondhand record store near his home on Telegraph Avenue, which actually exists, and is located between the yuppified Berkeley, where he lives with his family, and Oakland, which is more working-class.
But something is wrong here. Chabon’s voice feels false, almost as if he is straining.
There is a pseudo-hipness to the entire project and the dialogue between the main characters feels hollow. For example, right at the start, he goes off on an extended riff about Nat that attempts to describe how Nat approaches his work sorting records in the store.
Chabon writes: “Nat spun the crate of records he had carried in with him, maybe thirty-five, forty discs to a Chiquita crate, startled idly flipping through them. At first Archy assumed Nat was bringing them in from home, items from his own collection he wanted to sell, or records he had taken home for closer study, the boundaries among the owner’s respective private stocks and store’s inventory being maintained with a careless exactitude...
“‘The man could go to Antarctica,’ Aviva Roth-Jaffe once said of her husband, ‘and come back with a box of wax 78s.’ Now, hopeless and hopeful, Nat sifted through this latest find, each disc potentially something great, though the chances of that outcome diminished by a factor of ten with each decrease in the randomness of the bad taste of whoever had tossed them out.”
After reading all of this, we feel inundated with excessive verbiage; no closer to Nat and his inner reality, and irritated with Chabon.
Yet, although the characters often seem to be operating on their own planets, and Chabon’s digressions grow more and more tedious, there are sprinklings of the author’s famed brilliance. For example, when describing one of the beloved regulars who hang out at Archy and Nat’s beloved store; a man the author teasingly nicknames “Mr. Nostalgia,” Chabon paints a convincing portrait of a certain type of guy who remains lost in the present.
Mr. Nostalgia is a 44-year-old Jewish man who “likes to smoke prescription indica, watch television programs about World War II, eat Swedish fish, and listen to the Grateful Dead, in any combination or grouping thereof. Undoubtedly, sure, he has some issues with authority, his father a survivor of two camps, his mother a marcher on Washington.
“Mr. Nostalgia was only five-six, almost, in his huaraches, and not quite in fighting trim... He deplored violence, except in 1944, in black and white, on television. He was a merchant of good reputation and long standing.”
But Mr. Nostalgia fades fast, and we are once again lost in a hailstorm of fake cool that shows no sign of letting up.