Michael Chabon's new novel ought to come with a CD of essential listening, for those readers whose knowledge of jazz and soul is lacking. Its male protagonists, longtime friends and bandmates Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, run a used record store in Oakland, California, under threat from the megastore due to open mere blocks away. And everything in Telegraph Avenue is musical. Archy is "a hi-hat of regret, struck hard and resounding." Nat is "crooked as a finger on a guitar string, humming like a struck length of wire."
At times, the prose is so loaded with imagery that it overwhelms the action. In one two-paragraph stretch, the Stallings' marital tension is compared to weather; hoodie-wearing kids to popcorn servings; anger to an improvised explosive device; and a view to a painting. Chabon's language can be like free jazz, the tune obscured by a flurry of sounds, until it resolves again, and segues into a string of toe-tapping, complementary solos.
Those solos belong not just to Archy and Nat, but to their families: their wives Gwen and Aviva; and their sons, Julie and Titus, who have started a sexual relationship. Meanwhile, Archy's estranged father, an erstwhile blaxploitation star, loiters with intent in the book's background. There's even a cameo from a pre-presidential senator Barack Obama. (The story is set in 2004.)
Telegraph Avenue follows Chabon's adorable campus caper Wonder Boys, his masterful geek epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and the gripping Jewish noir The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It's five years since that last novel proper, though he's published two books of essays and a short historical adventure for young adults in the interim. His last essay collection, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, undoubtedly informs the male characters of Telegraph Avenue. Indeed, its subtitle neatly sums up Archy's entire narrative. To his credit, Chabon doesn't mount a straightforward defence of the little guy versus The Man, and Nat and Archy's fierce, semi-rational affection for their ailing record store is entwined with their flaws as husbands and fathers.
Chabon's latest is neither as expansive and moving as Kavalier and Clay, nor as intriguingly eccentric as The Yiddish Policemen's Union. But like a favourite old jazz LP, it's richly pleasurable from beginning to end.