Monday, December 31, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Reviewed by NC Weil

Michael Chabon is an engaging writer - he tells a good story in a listen-to-this-one style larded with history, specialized allusions to music, movies and food, and emotional tides. Truth is essential to fiction - a false statement jars the reader into losing faith in author and story both. But from doubleknit suits and musical knowledge, to the uneasy political correctness of white Berkeley (featuring a cameo by prospective US Senator Barack Obama), Chabon is right on. He polishes those details till they shine, their specifics putting us firmly in a place and time.

He structures the story so collisions loom: Gwen Shanks, pregnant midwife, in a foundering marriage with Archy Stallings; Archy's partner Nat Jaffe with whom he co-owns Brokeland Records, a used record store tended with love and knowledge in a struggling neighborhood on the edge where yuppie post-radical Berkeley meets dumped-upon poor cousin Oakland (Brokeland being a conflation of the two); Nat's wife Aviva who is Gwen's partner in a midwife practice; the Jaffes' fourteen-year-old son Julius ("Julie"); his friend and crush Titus, a refugee from familial chaos who has showed up in Oakland to be near his father Archy Stallings; Archy's martial-artist blaxploitation-flick absentee father Luther Stallings - all these characters need something from each other, owe something to each other, but live as though they don't have to change.

The collisions: race, money, generational failures, politics, ego.

Gwen, Archy, Luther and Titus are black. Nat, Aviva and Julie are white and Jewish. Archy fools around (hence Titus), including an affair in the midst of Gwen's pregnancy. Nat has bipolar tendencies: moody, volcanic and prickly, liable to regrettable outbursts. Gwen, who dreamed of bringing black babies into the world outside of the expense and hierarchy of the medical establishment, finds herself serving a wealthy, neurotic white clientele while black women shun her craft for the security of hospital deliveries. The tenuous rights of midwives keep Aviva and Gwen's practice marginal, and a birth emergency responded to by an arrogant white doctor triggers an outburst from Gwen, imperiling the women's hospital privileges. Meanwhile Gibson Goode, black sports hero and entrepreneur, is launching an investment with the support of local political figures: a megastore a couple of blocks from Brokeland Records, featuring among other things a quality vinyl section. Nat and Archy raise opposition to the project among the fringes, but their stand seems quixotic against Goode's deep pockets and political clout.

Meanwhile, Luther Stallings and his co-star Valletta, still a head-turner in her fifties, show up intending to raise the money to make one final film. Luther, for decades a drug user and lowlife, has cleaned up, but Archy cannot trust him. Titus and Julie however, cult film aficionados, discover Luther and fall in with the glow of his plans. The old kung fu master still has some moves, and amid the wreckage of his life, he puts them to good use.

Chabon's sentences have to be unpacked - you can't skim this book and have any idea what's going on. An example:
"In fact, Gwen disbelieved in qi and in 97 percent of the claims that people in the kung fu world made about it, those stories of people who could lift Acuras and avert bullets and bust the heads of mighty armies by virtue of their ability to control the magic flow. Ninety-seven percent was more or less the degree to which Gwen disbelieved in everything that people represented, attested to, or tried to put over on you. And despite midwives' latter-day reputation as a bunch of New Age witches, with their crystals and their alpha-state gong CDs and their tinctures of black and blue cohosh root, most midwives were skeptical by training, Gwen more skeptical than most. Nonetheless, she felt something coursing through her and around her, mapped by the flying beads [of the restaurant beaded-curtain divider she'd just torn down after seeing her husband sitting beyond it with his inamorata]. She glowered down at the bastard who had somehow managed  to conceal his bulk behind her 3 percent blind spot and sneak into her life."

The avalanche of detail overwhelms the story at times, but Chabon won't leave us in this chaos. His characters crash into each other, illusions shattering, and they have to chart new courses onward in life. He cares enough about them to invest each with her or his own dignity, purpose and hope, giving us ample reasons to trek along on their adventures. But he also crafts each with a fatal weakness - not fatal meaning "going to die" but signifying "of fate" - their own flaws which have made them who they are as well as setting them up for the struggles we witness. And these weaknesses, ultimately, are what make this a fine story - we understand these people, we sympathize. We want them to work it out.