It figures that, on one of the rare occasions when I mention on this blog that I've started reading a new book, it takes me embarrassingly long to finish it. Telegraph Avenue really isn't a difficult book - the language is clear, the plot moves around nicely, and there's a good mix of humor and angst that keeps things engaging. All I have to offer in my defense is the Presidential election and Skyrim, both of which took way too much of my time and attention over the last month or two.
But, yeah... now that I've finished it, I can say that Telegraph Avenue is definitely a good book! Among Chabon's other novels, I can only compare it to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I liked that other book a little more than this one, but Telegraph Avenue is still quite good, and I think my preference for Kavalier may have more to do with my genre inclinations than anything else.
The books are similar in that they share a strong focus on a complex relationship between two men, both troubled and loving, and how their business partnership sours over the years. In Kavalier, we travel through decades of time with the two protagonists, experiencing the thrill of success and the sickening worry of defeat. Telegraph Avenue takes place over a much compressed timeframe of about a month, so much of its relationship arcs are told in retrospect rather than shown in the present. In the earlier book, the partners' personal lives drive a wedge into their business; in this new book, problems with the business spill over and damage their personal lives.
Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings are infinitely less famous than Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, and the greatest strength of the book may be the way it zooms in on and fully inhabits a particular neighborhood, with a certain culture, with a small universe of characters with lifelong relationships. It's a really neat and deep look at the web of relationships that each of us have, from those closest to us (spouses, family, business associates) to friends to acquaintances to the people we recognize but never speak to. There's a really touching scene after one character dies when we get to see many of the other people who had touched his life. Some of this man's best friends didn't know about those parts of his life, and start reconciling their idea of who he was with this new information. That felt like a very realistic situation: we all are complex people, with many facets, and any given person will only see some aspects of who we are.
Telegraph Avenue does have a wider range of main characters than Kavalier did; the earlier book was mostly focused on the two titular protagonists, with a large supporting cast. Telegraph Avenue gives equal time to Nat, Archy, Archy's pregnant wife Gwen, Nat's son Julius, and Julius's friend Titus. (Archy's wife Aviva seems like she should also be in this list, though to me she seemed less present than the others.) Several powerful businessmen (either nationally powerful or locally powerful, and sometimes locally powerful is more within the book's context) fill more or less antagonistic roles. There's a small constellation of quirky characters who spend part of their lives in Brokeland Records: Moby the wigger environmental lawyer, Singletary the local entrepreneur, an elderly musician, a parrot, and more. And then there are the people whose lives only briefly touch the protagonists', appearing in a single cameo scene: Mr. Nostalgia, and an ambitious state senator from Illinois.
Some reviewers have mainly discussed this novel as a book about race. I actually thought it was kind of the opposite: it's a book where race plays a surprisingly minor role. I can think off hand of one major racially-tinged incident, which does cast an ugly pall over the people it affects, but for the most part this is a book about people living remarkably unprejudiced lives. I didn't figure out what race everyone was until a hundred pages or so into the book, and while race certainly does play a part in the plot (which includes some old Blaxpoitation movies and worries over authenticity), the book's focus is much more on human issues.
As with Kavalier, the book doesn't try to sugarcoat everything and lead everyone to a perfect ending free of any pain. Everyone turns out all right in the end, but in a way that feels earned. People have made mistakes, and they pay for those mistakes; some good things in their lives are gone, and they feel ambiguous towards the new things replacing them. The characters become marginally but measurably better people by the novel's end.
All in all, it's a fairly low-stakes but impressive novel, trading off the sweeping grandeur of Kavalier for greater intimacy. I'd recommend the novel to anyone who likes Chabon's other books, and would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who has spent any time in the East Bay.