Thursday, July 11, 2013

Summer Reading: Telegraph Avenue

If you are looking for a good escape this summer, there is no better place than the East Bay area of Oakland, California and the world that Michael Chabon has created around the Brokeland Records Store. No one draws characters as well as Chabon and when he uses the music business as a setting for their hopes and dreams, foibles and failings, the result is rich reading.
Here are some of the characters you will meet in Telegraph Avenue.
Archy Stallings, “moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned…wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant flying tortoise of Japanese cinema.”
Nate Jaffe, his partner and fellow musician, “who showed up for work under a cloud. His bad mood a space helmet lowered over his head, poor Nat trapped inside with no way to know whether the atmosphere was breathable, no guard to tell him when his air supply would run out.”
One of the regulars at the store was Cochise Jones, “with that inveterate hunch to his spine from fifty years conducting experiments at the keyboard of the Hammond B-3.”
Jones travels with a parrot named Fifty Eight on his shoulder, who could give out “a note-perfect reading of Jones’ take on the old Mahalia Jackson spiritual, Trouble of the World.”
There are more, like the ex-NFL star turned record store and real estate magnate, a funeral director who’s linked to Archie’s dad Luther Stallings (the star of kung fu blaxploitation films in the 70s trying to find the money for a comeback with his co-star Valletta Moore: “Do what you gotta do. And stay fly”) and Archy’s pregnant wife, who is a midwife.
The basic plot is pretty standard. The record store is going under, and the developers will try any trick they can to get them to sell out their anchor position for the new “mall.”
While this is not the paean to life in a record store that Nick Hornby created in High Fidelity, it is an admirable entry in the genre. Here are some samples of Chabon’s use of the music mystique.
--The science of cataloging one-handed. Pluck a record from the crate, tease the paper sleeve out of the jacket…waiter the platter out with your fingertips touching nothing but label. Angle the disc in the morning light …to tell you the truth about the record’s condition.
--Archy tended to make up for his hypercritical attitude toward the condition of vinyl records by going too easy on human beings.
--Only Mr. Jones had always stopped to drop a needle in the long inward spiraling groove that encoded Archy, and listen to the vibrations.
--Cochise began his vandalism in earnest, snapping off bright bunches of melody and scattering it in handfuls, packing it with extra notes in giddy runs.

Chabon broadens his story from the confines of the record store and its crates of musical history to offer comments on the struggles of the civil rights era and the cultural habits of today’s Berkeley hipsters. At times his plots and characters careen from crisis to crisis like Keystone Kops eventually to be reined in by enduring ties to family and history and music.

Telegraph Avenue is the age-old story of people pursuing dreams while trying to figure out the rent. Can we keep the band together? Can we hold on to music etched onto vinyl?