Telegraph Avenue is the corridor from downtown Oakland at Broadway Avenue to the foot of the UC Berkeley campus. The street is a cornucopia of subcultures that includes a Korean shopping district, many poor black neighborhoods, the middle-class up and coming “gentrified” Temescal district near the MacArthur BART station, and leftist Berkeley shopping that serves the exploratory interests of the college crowd. The avenue bisects two separate freeway overpasses and for several blocks runs parallel to another freeway, all part of the “maze” of the I-580, I-980, and SR-24 that have carved up Oakland’s landscape for the sake of convenient travel across the East Bay region. Telegraph Avenue itself is just as important for traveling within the Oakland/Berkely border as those freeways are for traveling outside it.
Michael Chabon’s latest book is titled in homage after this iconic avenue and the narrative setting takes place along Telegraph Avenue in the not-so-long-ago year of 2004. Just as Telegraph Avenue is a cornucopia of cultures, this novel reflects the diverse goings-on of the Oakland community. This is the tale of two familys, one black, one white, that are intertwined with business partnerships and love interests. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe co-own an eclectic record store called Brokeland Records. Nat is a bit of a hot-head and Archy is a distracted womanizer, but together the two focus their energies in fighting for the historical significance of their record store as a tycoon is attempting to move a mega-store into their neighborhood that would threaten to put them out of business. Archy and Nat’s wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are both mid-wives that work together with a business called Berkeley Partners that serves the boutique desires of uppity Berkeley women desiring a home-birth. They run into trouble as one their pregnancies goes wrong, putting them in legal trouble with the local hospital. Nat and Aviva’s son, Julie, is a teenager exploring his blossoming homosexuality as he falls in love with Archy’s estranged son from another woman, Titus Joyner. In addition to the interwoven intimacies of the two familys, there is a side-story involving Arhcy’s father, Luther Stallings, who was a seventies blaxploitation movie star that has been absent from Archy’s life due to a crack-cocaine addiction. His estranged grandson, Titus, idolizes him and gets caught up in a scheme to blackmail a city council member and former Black Panther member. There is also a flight in a Zeppelin dirigible, endless homages to classic music, and political entanglements with the city council zoning commission all thrown in the mix to add to the entanglements experienced by the central characters.
This novel is as much about the Oakland/Berkeley border as it is about these two families. The dichotomy of black/white family partnerships is an obvious symbol for the overlapping cultures that dominate the Oakland and Berkeley border. This is all set up for what could have been an excellent book about the history of Oakland and where it is going, however my reading often lead me down a path of annoyance with Chabon’s obligatory effort to establish a sense of place through his over-indulgent references to Oakland/Berkeley icons. This novel tries really hard to sell Oakland, to promote its historical significance and working-class culture and in some instances these references work, such as presented in a drive through the massive no-man’s land that is the Port of Oakland. More often than not though, Chabon’s style is painful and over-indulgent with a penchant to label everything with an aura of locality down to inane references to a turmeric-stained spork from Vic’s Chaat cafe, a kaleidoscope colored pen from Children’s Fairyland, or a gym clothes stuffed tote-bag from Berkeley Bowl. These references serve no other purpose other than to exclaim, “hey this place, this Oakland that gets such a bad-rap, it is a great place infused with originality and culture and things to do!” Furthermore, from a stylistic perspective, I found that Chabon would get lost in these descriptive diversions that were often overly long, wordy, and distracting. For instance, Chapter III, “A Bird of Wide Experience,” is a twelve page meandering sentence that describes the flight of a released bird traveling through Oakland and Berkeley to roost in Tilden park. That chapter is a worst-case example of the disastrous narrative style on display in this book, and there are just to many distracting narrative digressions and I just wanted Chabon to get on with it and get to the point. The language isn’t beautiful for the sake of beauty, it is verbose for the sake of writing only.
What those overly windy descriptive passages do serve to illuminate in this particular novel is to reveal that Oakland and it its neighboring East Bay region is caught up in a pride of decline, a breast-beating about mediocrity that idolizes the past with little vision of the future. The very fact that the main story arch is concerned about the competitive life of a record store, a peddler in antiquated music that can now be bought, sold, or pirated electronically, demonstrates the old-school mentality at work. This is further illuminated in the story arch that focuses on the death of a close friend of Nat and Jaffe, Mr. Cochise Jones. A large portion of this novel is focused on the funeral procession for this elderly musician and the eulogistic tone serves to demonstrate a desire for things past, an acknowledgement of history with a muddled vision about the meaning of the direction of the past’s wanderings. There is a lot of reference to the impact of the Black Panthers on the Oakland region, however oddly, there is little reference to what is happening now, or at least in the now of 2004. Scattered in this cloud is an odd and unnecessary cameo appearance of then-Chicago State Senator Barak Obama at a jam session played by the main characters Nat & Archy on the night that their friend Jones passes away. The appearance of our current president in Oakland at a small club while campaigning for the US Senate seat in August of 2004 just doesn’t make any sense, nor does it propel the plot in any direction. It seems that Chabon was trying really hard to here to make some kind of convoluted point about Oakland being a city with a large African American population by plopping into this narrative the most powerful African American at the date of publishing in 2012. Was this supposed to be some kind of homage to blaxploitation story arcs? It just didn’t work for me.
What did work was the story arc that focuses on Gwen Shanks, the mid-wife of Birthing Partners and pregnant wife of Archy Stallings. When Gwen takes the stage, the meandering descriptions are toned down and Chabon’s style becomes more action oriented. In Gwen, Chabon has created a strong and compelling female character and most of the action that matters takes place when the narrative focuses on her. She displays great strength of character when she fights back against a doctor that disrespected her through a racial slur and she demonstrates that she won’t be pushed around by her bum of a husband as she first moves out and then kicks him out of the house. As a testament to the complexity of her character, before it appeared as a central issue in the novel I found myself wondering whether, when the time came, she would choose to have her baby in a hospital or at home. This dichotomy of choice between old and new ways of living is central to the plot, and through the complexity of Gwen’s character the novel finds a soul that is worth cheering for and championing. However, despite this strong point, the novel lacks engagement. As I was describing the plot to my wife, an Oakland native, her response to my description was “that sounds boring,” and sadly my response was a renowned acknowledgement to her accusation.