Friday, October 12, 2012

Read. This. Book.

The last time I was this excited about a novel was in 2009, when I gave Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin a rare three-star rating in my reading journal.  Since it went on to win both the National Book and IMPAC Dublin Awards, I think my early call was a good one.  Here’s this year’s: Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, will win either the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, or both.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), Chabon used the golden age of comics as the framework for his story of Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, Jewish cousins in New York City and Hollywood in the years around World War II.  Although it’s set mostly in 2004, Telegraph Avenue conjures the golden age of the recording industry. The music of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s provides the soundtrack for the trials and travails of Archy and Nat, co-owners of a classic vinyl record store in Oakland, California, whose livelihood is threatened by the impending construction of a music mega-mall in the neighborhood. Their wives are also partners, midwives whose practice is facing its own existential crisis. Their sons are bound by different ties, as they grapple with the angst of adolescence and uncertain identity. I hate reviews that tell me too much of the plot, so I’m not going to reveal any more. (For those of you who want to know more ahead of time, read New York Times reviewer, Michiko Kakutani.)  Fun for local readers is a subtle Richmond connection - watch for mentions of Shockoe Bottom and the Times-Dispatch.

Michael Chabon

The plot is engaging, the characters sympathetic and fully developed; but it is Chabon’s writing that makes it impossible to put this book down, brings smiles with every page, and sets Telegraph Avenue apart from every other book I’ve read this year.  I played a game with a fellow reader: open to any page, point, and at your fingertips is a sentence worth reading aloud.  A favorite passage, which describes the attendees at a neighborhood meeting:

Shoshana Zucker, who used to be the director of Julie’s nursery school, a chemotherapy shmatte on her head; Claude Rapf the urban planner, who lived on a hill above the Caldecott Tunnel in a house shaped like a flying saucer…; a skinny, lank-haired Fu Manchued dude later revealed with a flourish to be Professor Presto Digitation, the magician…; two of the aging Juddhists who had recently opened a meditation center called Neshama…; that freaky Emmet Kelly—as Gloria Swanson—impersonator lady from the apartment over the Self-Laundry, holding her Skye terrier; Amre White, godson of Jim Jones, now the pastor of a rescue mission…; a city of Berkeley arborist…; that Stephen Hawking guy who was not Stephen Hawking; the lady who owned the new-wave knitting store…; a noted UC Berkeley scholar of Altaic languages…carrying on his right shoulder without acknowledgment and for unspoken reasons a ripe banana…; Sandy the dog trainer….

Without the ellipses, the paragraph spans an entire page and describes at least twenty of the neighborhood's denizens in sparkling snapshots, complete portraits between semicolons.  More than a passage, it is a journey through a neighborhood whose inhabitants each have a story that Chabon has yet to tell.

His prose delights in smaller bits as well:
"From the lowest limb of a Meyer lemon, a wind chime searched without urgency for a melody to play."

"Walter broke off a piece of a smile and tucked it in his left cheek as if reserving it for future use."

"And then, as if the line that hooked it had been snagged for all these years on some deep arm of coral, an afternoon bobbed to the surface of his memory....Archie took hold of the line with both hands and hauled up the afternoon, streaming years like water."

It doesn't get much better than that.

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