I have a pretty good track record with Mr. Chabon. Aside from The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which just eluded me, I’ve enjoyed both his fiction (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and his non-fiction (Manhood for Amateurs, Maps & Legends). So, based on a friend’s recommendation and a ticket to Mr. Chabon’s appearance at the beautiful Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, I picked up a paperback copy of Telegraph Avenue the day it came out. The clerk had to go into the back to get one; it hadn’t even been put out on the floor yet.
Now I’d read one review, so I knew a bit about what to expect. Chabon, the review said, had made one of his characters black and the reviewer said that some of the dialogue seemed a bit extreme.
Why did this bother me? I’ve never been a firm believer in the ‘Write What You Know’ axiom. For some (Neil Simon comes to mind because of a long ago conversation at Morton’s in Chicago), it works. I think most good writers (and I’d put Mr. Chabon in that category can make stuff up.
But either the reviewer underplayed the issue or I only remembered a piece of it. Not only is one of the protagonists (Archy) black (and Mr. Chabon, for those who don’t know, is not), but his father is former star of 1970s black exploitation films. And Archy has a son, Titus, who he didn’t acknowledge for 14 years until the kid shows up in his neighborhood and has an ambiguous sexual relationship with Julie, the son (yes, son, until, unless – no, that would be a spoiler) of Archy’s (white) business partner, Nat. Chabon clearly made no little plans for this novel.
Though there are lulls in the plot at times, the writing is electric throughout. The magnificent sentence that marks the flight of 58 (a parrot – believe me, it makes sense) is majestic. So is the eulogy Archy delivers. At first, I wondered if Chabon could keep it up for 465 pages; he does. The details are magnificent. I would love to see Chabon and Junot Diaz talk pop culture.
Mostly, I admired Chabon’s ability to evoke the neighborhood that surrounds Brokedown Records on Telegraph Avenue. In the end, this was, in my mind, the major success of the book. Chabon could be talking about his own book when he writes, “It was all about the neighborhood, that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion as the talk grew ever more scholarly and wild” (465). Though the character of Gibson Goode (a poke at Magic Johnson?) seems a bit broadly sketched, the conflict he brings into the story is presented in an even-handed manner. It is to Chabon’s credit that, as a reader, I empathized with no one and every one.
My ticket to hear (?) / see (?) Mr. Chabon was for earlier this evening. I knew it was going to be him and his wife, Ayelet Waldman. Of the two, she was definitely more dynamic. I am curious to read something of hers. (Any recommendations?) But there was no moderator, and the arrangement came off as a bit cutesy and pre-packaged. The two of them sat on stage and talked (guided by a timer) about collaboration (as writers, as parents) and how art and life intersected for them.
Through a set of awkward circumstances, I ended up asking the last question (the third, after there were supposed to be just two more). I asked Mr. Chabon about the thought process that went into making one of his main characters black. I asked the question badly and perhaps because I asked it badly, or perhaps I asked a question just of him, or perhaps because he’d heard the question before (on his book tour? in reviews?), or perhaps for none of these reasons, he seemed annoyed. (Perhaps he wasn’t?) He gave me an answer that was almost verbatim from the “About the Book’ section at the end of the paperback edition. In sum, he’d visited a record store, seen that it was run by two partners, one white and one black man, and that it was a community hangout. He decided it made a great setting and wrote about it. To fill in any gaps, he used research and his own observations. I’m not sure what kind of answer I expected. Author talks are a funny thing. But the answer seemed disingenuous at the time and that feeling was confirmed when I read the ‘About the Book’ section in the novel.
[A probably petty aside to the huffy and obsequious librarian who invited Ms. Waldman to a mystery festival in front of the whole audience.
a) You don’t invite an author to an event in front of an audience. There’s a protocol. Follow it.
b) Before you criticize me for asking an extra question, you might want to make sure you know all of the facts. I gave you the opportunity to ask me, but you got on your high horse and rode away.]