This is a tough book to do a review of, as it is Chabon at both his best and his worst. His language, his sense of humor and his character portrayals are priceless, and he has chosen a location to write about which is as colorful as it is historic—San Francisco. At the same time, he has overlaid plot upon plot, to the point that he has created a tapestry more full of color than of story.
Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are two long-term friends, bandmates and co-owners of Brokeland Records, a small store for used records located somewhere between Oakland and Berkeley which is struggling to survive against the onslaught of digital music. Their wives are midwives and partners. A huge music store is coming to town which virtually guarantees the bankruptcy of Brokeland Records, and triggers a crisis between Archy and Nat. Archy’s wife is expecting her first child, and Archy is a philanderer. Archy gets thrown out of his home for most of the story. Nat and his wife have a teenage son who is struggling with his sexual identity. A home birth goes awry, and the midwife partnership is threatened. Archy’s father, a former martial arts movie star turned cocaine addict, is trying to make a comeback and is using blackmail to get the funding for a film which will never see the light of day. A teenaged son that Archy never knew he had suddenly appears on the scene, and enters into an adolescent affair with Nat’s love-smitten son. Even Barack Obama makes a (gratuitous) appearance!
Throw in at least a dozen or more characters, including an ageless Chinese woman who claims to have trained Bruce Lee and a homeless parrot, and you’ve got as colorful a collection of old-timers as you can imagine. The problem is that there is so much action swirling around that it is hard to know which plot line to follow, which character to root for, and what lessons to draw from all this. Is the book about marriage, home birthing, jazz, political corruption, race politics, or none of the above? Chabon’s wordiness is part of his brilliant charm, but in this book it can sometimes feel like quicksand.
Telegraph Avenue is highly imaginative, to be sure, but I found it too helter-skelter, too crammed full of confusing plot points and overlong digressions, to have the kind of lasting impact one has come to expect of Chabon.