By Neil Harvey
Late in Michael Chabon’s second novel, 1995’s “Wonder Boys,” writer Grady Tripp, who’s toiled for years on a 2,600-page book, gets some frank feedback.
“After a while … it gets all spread out,” a friend says of Tripp’s work-in-progress. “Jammed too full.”
“You have whole chapters that go for thirty and forty pages with no characters at all!”
Nearly two decades after he wrote those lines, Chabon has produced “Telegraph Avenue,” an urban pastoral of North Oakland, Calif. This is his seventh novel and — although it never goes 30 pages without a character — it, too, could at times be deemed “all spread out” and “jammed too full.”
In this case however, that’s not a criticism. Not necessarily.
“Telegraph” touches down in the long lost year 2004 to spend a few days with Archy Stallings and Nat Shanks, two professional vinyl LP aficionados. Their decidedly off-line record shop, and their neighborhood, is threatened by an impending big-box music store, and their wives’ midwifery partnership is sailing similarly choppy waters. Meanwhile, Nat’s brilliant, flamboyant, socially inept teenage son has fallen for a mysterious new kid in town, and Archy’s estranged, rarely-do-well father, Luther, has resurfaced to conduct business of an unclear-but-almost-certainly-illicit nature.
There’s not much more plot than that. Chabon has long had an uncanny knack for descriptions, for metaphor and simile, and here those abilities largely overrule his narrative drive as he trains an almost microscopic focus on Nat and Archy’s world.
Such a high level of detail and texture can, at least at first, seem a little exhausting, especially if you’re expecting an excess of activity. I made a confused note beside the section where he introduces each of the more than one dozen guests at a community meeting, despite the fact that few of them appear elsewhere in the story, but that was well before I encountered the chapter that consists of a single unbroken sentence, spread across 11 pages, beautifully if somewhat breathlessly documenting the flight of a freed pet parrot.
Even the blaxploitation-tinged mystery of what Luther is up to, which basically serves as a carrot to lure readers across the book’s 500 pages, dangles from a stick that is surprisingly long and twisted.
Yet unlike Grady Tripp, with his endless rambling epic, Chabon — who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001 — has prose strong enough to sustain his various riffs. He’s not just noodling or showing off here; he’s carefully unpacking a very specific place and a cast of characters for which he has palpable affection.
And while the story occasionally examines issues of race and culture and family, Chabon’s main concern here is actually the notion of change — shifting careers, evolving relationships, revising one’s dreams and goals to the times. That’s a curious subtext for such a leisurely paced book, but by the story’s resolution, it’s one that proves perfectly apt.