In one sense, not a lot happens in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. In fact, you could summarize the plot in a sentence or two. (I won’t give it away.) But, on another level, Telegraph Avenue is the center of our cultural universe circa 2010.
Narrowly viewed, Telegraph Avenue presents a cultural history of Oakland CA over the past half century — beginning with the migration of Blacks from the South into California during the second world war through the present time when big box stores, Gen X/Y/Z consciousness and hip hop quake the landscape. In the midst, as the chronicler of changing tastes and values, stands the entertainment industry (primarily music, but also film). Entertainment — where it originates, how it is transmitted, who benefits and what happens to those who try to ride the wave–is one of the truly American industries. Entertainment is a window into our collective soul, a measure of how we’re coping and a record of our successes and failures.
Selling used vinyl (records to the lay person) from a storefront is how Archy Stallings and his white Jewish partner Nat Jaffe try to support their families, while their wives struggle with the more down-to-earth challenges as midwives to Oakland’s new age mothers-to-be. But big box competition threatens the guys’ livelihood and the strains of family history coupled with the perils of trying to make a difference by providing counter-culture healthcare threaten domestic tranquility. In Michael Chabon’s hands that’s all that’s needed to serve as the backdrop to portrarying life in America.
Parenting, making a living, the Man, kids, race, local politics, death, business, gender and soul. Chabon throws them all into the blender creating a drink that only he could devise. The result will leave you hungry for his next concoction.