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A Supersized Slice Of Life In 'Telegraph Avenue'

Michael Chabon is the author of <em>The Mysteries of Pittsburgh</em>, <em>The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay</em> and <em>The Yiddish Policemen's Union</em>.
Ulf Andersen
Getty Images
Michael Chabon is the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue is an agreeable if ultimately frustrating shaggy-dog tale of a novel that slips its leash and lopes its discursive and distinctly unhurried way through the unkempt backyards of its characters' lives. There is much here to recommend, but then, there is much here, period, including but not limited to: blackmail, infidelity, first love, kung fu, midwifery, a Barack Obama cameo and an enormously phallic black zeppelin, all presented in a manner as loose and tension-free as a stoner's wee-hours disquisition on why his favorite album totally rules, man.

But of course that's a deliberate choice on Chabon's part. The novel's central metaphor is jazz, soul and funk music: how it saturates the lives of those who make it, how it shapes the sensibilities of those who obsessively consume and collect it, and how it nurtures fervent, fractious communities like the one that exists in and around Brokeland, a dusty record store threatened by the imminent arrival of a vast urban mall. But while it provides Chabon ample opportunities to riff entertainingly in lovely, evocative prose (as when he describes an act of uncharacteristic heroism as "a high point in a life lived at sea level, prone to flooding"), jazz music proves a fitful and underpowered narrative engine.

In setting Telegraph Avenue in a neighborhood that straddles Berkeley and Oakland, Chabon has created a novel that hovers in the bleed between black and white, young and old, straight and gay, rich and poor, the Old School and the New Age. In Chabon's hands, these worlds don't so much collide as rub up against each other softly, warmly, in a genial cloud of kush smoke.

As the novel begins, Nat, the misanthropic Jewish owner of Brokeland, has taken to fulminating against the slick city councilman who has paved the way for the superstore that will ultimately doom Nat's beloved business. Nat's co-worker Archy, a congenitally mellow black dude who shares only a nodding relationship with notions like responsibility and fidelity, has a baby on the way — and a no-account father whose secret criminal past with the selfsame councilman is about to come to light.

Meanwhile, Nat and Archy's spouses, Aviva and Gwen, midwives who share a successful natural-birth concern, find their livelihood suddenly threatened even as Archy's long-unacknowledged teenage son appears to complicate his life — and become the semi-willing object of Nat's nerdy gay son's unrequited love.

A tangled network of characters, to be sure, but Chabon slips in and out of their heads with practiced ease, even if his unilateral empathy seems to preclude him from measurably raising the book's stakes. Over and over again, Chabon is content to inject tension into the proceedings and release it on the very next page. A question will arise over a given character's paternity, identity or motivation, for example, or a secret pact will be struck only to get dissolved suddenly and utterly in a warm summer shower of authorial beneficence.

Throughout Telegraph Avenue, Chabon indulges a habit of presenting a pithy bit of dialogue and then proceeding to parse it for several paragraphs, effectively doubling back to hold his writing up to the light and admire its facets. In less sure hands, it would read as mere self-indulgence. But here, it comes off as an honest attempt to experiment, to play around the edges of his phrasing in a meandering attempt to find and delineate its heart — a practice known to musicians as "noodling."

Your patience for such writerly noodliness will largely dictate the extent of your enjoyment. Because even as slack pacing saps the book of urgency and momentum, line-by-line, Chabon remains the writer of insight and eloquence he has been since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh first launched him into the literary stratosphere 24 years ago.

When, for example, he wistfully observes that "not even God could hold onto the love of Israel in the desert without the jewelry getting melted down, now and then, to make a calf," we recall the effortless grasp on the human heart he displayed in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. If that adroitness eludes him now and then, if we on occasion catch him grunting with effort, as when he notes that a character plays a cover version of an old standard as if "... the meaning or spirit of the original song meant no more to [him] than a poem means to a shark that is eating the poet," we've only to wait a few pages for him to make another approach.

Chabon has set out to present his readers with a slice-of-life portrait of a neighborhood at a crossroads. The problem is that Telegraph Avenue is no mere slice — it's an entire deep-dish pie of humanity, packed with prose capable of dazzling us even as it leaves us feeling overstuffed and logy.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.