This book could be called “Archy and Gwen and Nat and Aviva”, since it’s primarily about two couples, one African-American and one Jewish, living in funky and down-at-the-heels Oakland, California. Archy and Nat together own a vinyl record store, Brokeland Records, that specializes in jazz, soul and rhythm and blues selections, and is a hangout for a variety of neighborhood characters. Needless to say, the store is bleeding money and its survival is in doubt. One day, former NFL star and present day megastore magnate Gibson Goode appears with plans to open a new store in the neighborhood, and offers Archy the opportunity to manage the store’s music section. Archy is tempted and Nat is outraged, and their friendship, like Brokeland Records, seems headed for perdition.
Meanwhile, Gwen and Aviva are partners in a midwifery practice. Gwen had hoped that by becoming a midwife, she could serve African-American women as midwives traditionally have. To Gwen’s dismay, it turned out that only white women from Berkeley who are seeking a non-traditional birth experience are drawn to their practice. The tensions in Gwen and Aviva’s relationship turn red hot when their practice is jeopardized after Gwen tangles with an obstetrician at the local hospital over a difficult home birth.
A lot is going on, as Chabon offers us an entire neighborhood full of activity and a plot that encompasses multiple generations of the main characters’ families. I enjoyed the company of these characters and their struggles to cope from moment to moment with the pressures of their past and the crisis of their impending future. There’s a great deal of references to music and films and, in some sections, rich use of our mother tongue. Telegraph Avenue works as a celebration, by a white author, of African-American urban culture and as an entertaining chronicle of these characters’ struggles to realize their individual visions of the American Dream.