After the publication of the breathtaking Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2000, American novelist Michael Chabon turned away from the largely plotless world of modern fiction and began exploring in depth his love of genre -- hard-boiled detective novels, comic books and swashbuckling adventures.
Though the Berkeley, Calif.-based writer's latest, Telegraph Avenue, is more like his early work, set, like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh or Wonder Boys, in the real world with certain elements of autobiography, it's no kitchen-sink drama.
It's also too cluttered to be his best. At the book's heart, as it was with Kavalier & Clay, is the friendship of two men. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe own a used-record store in Oakland, Calif.
Never a cash cow, Brokeland Records is now on the verge of collapse owing to the prospective arrival in the 'hood of a mini-mall run by a local boy made good, an ex-pro quarterback and current music impresario whose so-called Dogpile will contain a record store that will put Brokeland to shame.
Archy, a man of huge appetites in several respects, is the son of Luther Stallings, formerly a kung fu champion and blaxploitation star, now a washed-up crackhead whom Archy has disavowed.
His wife, Gwen, is a midwife, herself nine months pregnant, growing increasingly irritated with both her rich, New Agey white clientele, and her husband's straying: "The outbreak of forgiveness that followed each new transgression of her husband's, as typhus followed a flood, called into question the difference, if any, between illusion and its wilful brother, delusion, with its crackpot theories and its tinfoil hat."
Nat, a man vibrating with a sense of injustice that often erupts into rants, is married to Aviva, Gwen's midwife partner. Their teenage son, Julie, is an inveterate nerd who is content with his moves, his portable 8-track player and his games, until he meets Titus, an inscrutable black boy with whom he falls immediately in love.
Even when chronicling the ruthless, tangled bonds of family, Chabon is still a fan-boy at heart, peppering the plot with references to jazz records, B-movies, comic books and science fiction.
The plot is like a sea anemone, waving, incandescent tendrils stretching beautifully out in all directions, pulsing with the pull of the waves but not actually moving very much.
Chabon stuffs the story with characters, including Cochise Jones, semi-legendary player of the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument that's "diesel-heavy, coffin-awkward, clock fragile"; the fabulous, if faded, Valletta Jones, Luther's formerly superfly co-star ("The officious swagger in her gait might have been some flavour of self-possession or the cool skedaddle of a shoplifter heading for the door"); and Irene Jew, an ancient Chinese woman who runs the Bruce Lee Institute and taught Luther kung fu.
Chabon is an elegant but exuberant stylist; his more baroque sentences go on and on, commas piled on commas, until you're almost breathless just reading them.
One particular example -- a entire 12-page chapter, no less -- is a single sentence, following the swoop of an African grey parrot through the neighbourhood. It's a tour de force, no doubt, but also the teensiest bit show-offy: Look, ma, no periods!
There's a sense of improvisation, in the jazz sense, to the whole book, Chabon digressing into riffs that circle and swoop with virtuosic cool -- for example, when describing Gwen's particularly piercing sotto voce: "A Shanks woman with a practiced embouchure could not only modulate the dynamics of her whisper but send it through closed doors, around corners, across time itself to echo everlastingly, for example, in the reprobate ears of a granddaughter married to a no-account man."
It's all dazzling, but one wishes occasionally that he would just stick to the melody, move things along. The meandering story means the ending fizzles instead of popping.
Telegraph Avenue doesn't stand as Chabon's finest work, but it's a street well worth exploring.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor whose proudest possession is an email from Michael Chabon circa 1995.
By Michael Chabon
Harper Collins, 480 pages, $32