Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue" follows the ups and downs of Archy Stallings, his partner, their shop of vinyls, their birth partner wives, and an array of friends and foes as they try to fight off a Big Box takeover and negotiate lives caught in the unsure balance of past and present mistakes. The setting is Berkeley, California, during the summer of 2004. Telegraph Avenue serves the umbilical cord that ties Berkeley to Oakland, past to present, struggling businessmen to ambitious entrepreneur, and city councilman with distant ties to a criminal past.
Flashbacks to the '70s feature the city councilman, Chan Flowers, and his wheelman, Luther Stallings (Archy's father) in Quentin Tarantino sequences that hold promise with its sharp dialog and sure descriptions of action and machinery: 'the crocodile-green '70 Toronado that purrs outside the Bit o' Honey Lounge with a chrome grin stretched beguiling and wide as the western horizon' and about to play a part in a hit on a hood named Popcorn serves up action and imagery that reminds one how gifted a writer Chabon truly is.
But the storyline quickly flashes forward to 2004 and much like the 'very aged and unfortunate Toronado in 2004 that judders, and heaves, and disputes with unseen antagonists like some kind of Telegraph Avenue hobo' it becomes rusty and pot marked along its underbelly and wheel beds. In exchange for the once muscular storyline that carried readers gracefully and prophetically through sequences set in the '70s, a more grayish and temperamental vehicle/storyline appears in the main body of the events set in 2004, a storyline that heaves and judders under the unsure weight of a plot set-up plagued with too many twists and too many characters and a void of action.
Furthermore, Telegraph Avenue as a street never really receives the proper treatment and descriptions that make it the unique place it is. However, Chabon makes up with this with brilliant passages about the Bay Area, like when Gwen (Archy's wife) considers the fact "that she never liked the Bay Area, with its irresolute and timid weather, the tendency of its skies to bleed grey, and the way it had arranged its hills and vistas like a diva setting up chairs around her to ensure the admiration of visitors."
For all its faults this novel is worth the journey, if not just for passages like the latter one. Chabon is a writer who has not as of yet written his greatest work, though "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" serves as his very best piece of work to date. "Telegraph Avenue" marks another step in that direction though, a provocative story that falls a bit short of the mark.