Two of September's biggest novels
Two of the biggest literary novels of September have plenty in common: Both are by award-winning former wunderkinds. Although set some 5,400 miles apart, both deal with the interracial friendships between two couples living in the cracked and crumbling sections of expensive cities. Both writers take a jazz-like approach to playing with words, one going in for long looping solos, while the other has a percussive, rat-a-tat delivery.
1. 'Telegraph Avenue,' by Michael Chabon
Next to an independent book store clerk, a record store owner is the spotted owl of fictional jobs.
Readers know from the get-go of Telegraph Avenue that they're meant to root for Archy Stallings and sad sack Nat Jaffe with every fiber of their being, no matter what stupidities they might commit in their essentially well-meaning way. And that's before Archy puts on his “funky suit,” 10 yards of purple satin punctuated by saddle shoes.
“Orphaned record libraries called out constantly to the partners from wherever fate had abandoned them, emitting a distress signal only Nat and Archy could hear. 'The man could go to Antarctica,' Aviva Roth-Jaffe once said of her husband, 'and come back with a box of wax 78s.'”
In Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon's ode to jazz, blaxploitation films, and vinyl, it's 2004 in Oakland, and Brokeland Records is the last holdout in a world of superstores. (The superstores themselves are about to become a relic of the recent past, a more innocent time when people actually purchased entire records, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.)
It's like a reimagined “High Fidelity,” with more leisure suits and fewer lists. (Also, sadly, less comedy, but few of us are as funny as Nick Hornby on his best day.)
Nat and Archy are also linked through their wives: Aviva is the “Alice Waters of midwives,” and Gwen, Archy's pregnant wife, is her partner. It's a financially precarious, warm-hearted way of life, with just enough environmental lawyers ready to lay out serious cash for their hobby, to get by.
Then former pro football player Gibson Goode, “the fifth richest black man in America,” shows up in Brokeland ready to create new Dogpile “Thang.”
Nat is ready to fight, but Archy is undecided, about, well, everything. “Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”
It's hard to root against someone who wants to bring jobs to an economically worn-down neighborhood. So Goode comes equipped with his own personal zeppelin, as well as an old crime involving Archy's estranged dad, Luther, a martial artist and blaxploitation film star, and the Black Panthers.
Luther is also back in town, with both him and his beloved Toronado having seen better days.
While Gwen is expecting their first child, Archy has been a dad, in name only, for 14 years – a fact he has neglected to share with his wife. That secret is now riding by on a bike nightly in the form of his teenage son, Titus.
Meanwhile, a home birth that goes awry threatens the livelihood of the more financially stable partners, threatening both families with personal and professional ruin.
Chabon, however, seems like too kind-hearted and generous a guy to plunge his characters into despair.
“You've got the good heart. Underneath all the other stuff. Good heart is eighty-five percent of everything in life,” Cochise Jones, Archy's surrogate dad, tells him.
“What is the other fifteen percent?” Nat said. “Just out of curiosity.”
“Politeness,” Mr. Jones said without hesitation. “And keeping a level head.”
Besides, Chabon is clearly having too much fun riffing on everything from John Ford's “Stagecoach” to fusion soul food. (Although I have to deduct style points for referencing the truly lame Disney movie “The Black Cauldron” instead of the classic Lloyd Alexander fantasy it was “based” on.) One sentence goes on for six looping pages.
“Telegraph Avenue” isn't an epic on the scale of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay,” for which Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize. It takes place over weeks instead of decades. But Chabon offers such an abundance of descriptions and quirky details, there's something for every reader, whether it's the octogenarian female sensei or the legendary jazz pianist who carries a parrot and boasts a closet that would make Imelda Marcos go wide-eyed in shock. (Chabon's characters reverse the shopping stereotype: The women mostly are too busy to worry about what they wear, while the men obsess over every stitch of their outfits. By the time a character is laid out in a gorgeous leisure suit with an Aztec motif, I felt like I'd been beaten with a bolt of vintage velour.) However, a scene involving then-Sen. Barack Obama imparting words of wisdom to a character knocked me clean out of the narrative.
Nat's teenage son, Julius,has painted a portrait of Miles Davis as a Mexican saint on a beaded curtain at the record store. But most of the males are equally obsessive – about vinyl, blaxploitation, and the movies of Quentin Tarantino. So many of them name check Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” – specifically the yellow-and-black tracksuit she wears, which is, of course a homage to Bruce Lee's outfit in “Enter the Dragon,” which, of course, each character has to mention – that readers will either be tensed for more graphic violence than actually appears, or really, really tired of talking about clothes. I fell into the latter category.
This is a world in which a teenager has his own portable eight-track player, but doesn't have a cell phone. It's not a practical place to live, but it sure is fun to visit.