This was one of those rare reads for me where I had no idea what the book was going to be about. I didn’t read a blurb beforehand, I just had the cover and the fact it was by Michael Chabon to guide me. (This quite frankly was enough.) The cover of course hinted that music was going to be central to the book, and it is (someone please make a soundtrack CD or playlist) but music is only one part of many.
Telegraph Avenue is a well known strip in Oakland, California and the centrepiece of the story is Brokeland Records, a used vinyl record store, on this strip. The shop is run by Archy and Nat, whose passion and knowledge of music brought them together as friends and then as business partners. But the store and their livelihood is under threat when a former sports star and local resident, now entrepreneur, announces plans to build a music megastore up the block from Brokeland Records. (As you can see a story close to an independent bookseller’s heart.)
But there is more going on in Archy and Nat’s lives than the record store. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, also work together as mid-wives specializing in home births and their job is not without its own dramas and confrontations. Then there are of course the children. Gwen and Archy are expecting their first child together, any day, and Archy’s faithfulness to their marriage is severely lacking. Nat and Aviva’s 14 year old son, Julie, is coming to terms with his sexuality and has fallen in love with a boy who is only going to complicate Archy’s life even more. And then there is Archy’s father, an ex-blaxploitation film star of the 1970s and absent father who was semi-involved in Black Panther politics who is now a recovering drug addict and back on the scene and causing much disturbance to many on Telegraph Avenue.
This is Michael Chabon at his creative and imaginative best. The microcosm he constructs in and around Brokeland Records sucks you right in. The story Chabon tells is alive with music, film, family, history and community. Every character is equally endearing, frustrating and involving. There is a reason Chabon is rated so highly as a writer and a storyteller and this book is why.