It could be the curse of the perfect novel. For me, Chabon’s masterpiece is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the sweeping story of two friends who unite to write amazing comic books, and it’s unfortunate that I will always compare his newer novels to it. Even The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I liked a lot, simply cannot compare. As for Telegraph Avenue, which in many ways resembles The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, with two friends presiding over another geeky venture, a used-record store, in the midst of a larger story (more modestly, here, Oakland, CA in the second half of the 20th century), I did not think it managed to rise above an interesting story.
There’s much I liked in the book. First is the perfect rendition of the setting, with the hipsters of Berkeley, the racial strife of North Oakland, and the retro vibe of the record store. Then there’s the story of the friends’ wives, who are also partners, as midwives to the aforementioned hipsters of Berkeley, mostly, and who run across the distrust and sometimes outright opposition of the hospital-based physicians. And finally there are the monumentally long, yet perfectly constructed sentences, American matches to Proust’s. Alas, I was never able to completely enter the world of the story. Too many obsessive mentions of old jazz records (which will probably delight the connoisseurs, though). An unbelieveable teenage love story, even for laid-back North Oakland, under the otherwise watchful eyes of the mothers. And some overwrought details (jamming at an Obama fundraiser, perhaps, but Obama taking a personal interest in one of the main characters?) Too bad, the setting is rendered so accurately you could be there, standing on Telegraph Avenue.