"TELEGRAPH AVENUE," by Michael Chabon, Harper, $27.99, 480 pages (f)
During the past decade, Michael Chabon's remarkable talent has secured his place on the short list of heavyweights in contemporary American literature. He's one of the few authors (alongside the likes of, say, Cormac McCarthy, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen) whose release of a novel qualifies as a publishing "event."
He deserves his renown. Chabon is a superb storyteller who couples vast lyrical skills with a rich imagination. His work is original, detailed and always enjoyable. Novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and the more recent "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" are reminders that a Chabon page-turner can be some of the most fun to be had for 25 or 30 bucks.
"Telegraph Avenue" is Chabon's latest effort and, as expected, the author crafts a singular tale. Does it realize the quality of most of his prior novels? No. But Chabon demonstrates again his capacity to conjure an entertaining story that's unafraid to ask a few uneasy questions.
At the center of "Telegraph Avenue" stands Archy Stallings — and he's feeling a bit wobbly. Archy is accustomed to slipping trouble with the same smoothness of the jazz artists whose classic albums he peddles in his neighborhood record shop.
But middle age has staggered Archy. His long-suffering wife has announced she's through suffering his infidelities. An unexpected, flesh-and-bone reminder of his reckless past presents itself with the appearance of a sullen teenage son.
And Archy's relationship with his business partner, Nat Jaffe, is challenged when their mom-and-pop store — located along Oakland's Telegraph Avenue — is jeopardized by a flashy music conglomerate intent on claiming the local record market.
Archy's woes are compounded by his errant father, Luther Stallings — an aging D-list hero of 1970s blaxploitation kung fu flicks whose actions can be counted on to disappoint his son.
Chabon presents plenty of heady themes in "Telegraph Avenue." At its core, the book is a nod to the painful, sometimes sloppy ties that somehow manage to bind a family.
Contemporary race relations are also examined. Archy is black. Nat is white. Can their friendship absorb a combo of heavy blows — or be exposed as a na?e fraud?
Ultimately, "Telegraph Avenue" can't scale the heights ascended by Chabon's modern classics. It's hopeful he keeps making the effort.
An alert: profanity is found throughout the book, along with some sexual content and other adult themes.