I’ll admit Telegraph Avenue was a bit of a struggle at first, but thanks to my commitment to book club and faith in Michael Chabon, I settled in to the book and found it a relevant and satisfying read, resulting in an interesting, lengthy discussion.
The story focuses on four characters in 1980s Oakland, California. Archy and Nat are longtime friends and partners in a struggling second-hand record shop, located in a space once occupied by a barbershop fondly remembered by old timers in the hood. Brokeland Records is at risk of becoming a piece of neighborhood history itself when a famous hometown boy, the fifth richest black man in America, announces plans to open a mega-record store in a new development down the way. As Archy and Nat react to the news, Chabon intertwines the stories of their wives, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as at-home midwives. Following a complicated delivery that requires hospital intervention, Gwen and Aviva find their own business and friendship compromised by the repercussions of a vindictive father and the condescending delivery room doctor. Parenthood, infidelity, race, class, friendship, gender, and pop culture play out in a “simpler,” pre-technology era.
The threads of this multi-character tapestry take a while to cohere, partly due to Chabon’s writing style, which can be quite effusive—sometimes I found myself screaming in my head, “enough already”—but the story is never boring and the prose is often breathtaking. Characters are nuanced, which make them human, sometimes frustratingly so, but that’s all part of the rewarding journey down Telegraph Avenue.