Some Things You Should Know
1. I'm reading as a I write. I'm writing as a read. In other words - I'm sticking to the schedule and I'm not reading ahead. This will cause me to make many assumptions on theme and plot that I reserve the right to change as the read along progresses. I figure it'll be more fun that way. I'll still post my usual review at the end of all this.
2. There will most likely be spoilers. Though I'll try (as I almost always do) to keep it at essential spoilers - i.e. nothing that would ruin any major surprises or plot twists... anything that would make you feel like, well - now I don't have to read this. Because I do want you to read this.
Summary (via HarperCollins)
As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there, longtime friends, bandmates, and coregents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the sketchy yet freewheeling borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland, on the quintessential East Bay avenue that gives the book its title. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of semilegendary midwives who have welcomed, between them, more than a thousand newly minted little citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart, half tavern, half temple, stands Brokeland Records. Archy and Gwen are expecting their first baby; Nat and Aviva have a teenage son, Julius. Cranky, flawed, and loving each other with all the fierceness we've come to expect of Chabon characters, they have worked to construct lives and livelihoods that have a groove, looking to connect across barriers of race and class, and clinging to a sense of order and security through their stubbornly old-school ways.
When ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in the United States announces plans to go forward with the construction of his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby neglected stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. What they don't know is that Goode's announcement marks the climax of a decades-old secret history, encompassing a forgotten crime of the Black Panther era, the tragedy of Archy's own deadbeat father... and the perpetual shining failure of American optimism about race.
I. Dream of Cream
A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike.That first line pretty much says it all. I mean, most glaringly - the white boy and the black boy let you know that you're most likely in for a story centered on and structured by race relations. But that image invokes more than that - youth, optimism, connection. A fairly simple image of the dream - be it the American Dream, King's Dream or the Dream of Cream.
What struck me right away was the rhythm of the language. Chabon describes Nat Jaffe: "Nat bulled in with his head down, humming low to himself; humming the interesting chord changes to an otherwise lame contemporary pop song; humming an angry letter... humming the first fragments of a new theory... humming when he wasn't making a sound, even when he was asleep, some wire deep in the bones of Nathaniel Jaffe always resounding." And that's what the novel does. It's got a funky, jazzy sort of beat.
Then, after that, the second chord struck (pun intended) was the depth of Chabon's writing. The layers! We've already established that there's the element of race. So we move on next to the American Dream - the story is set in 2004, against the rise of a big box store referred to as the Thang. Which, I was trying to remember - is that around the time when the big boxes really started to hit it big? I think it was around then, 2000, when Target and Barnes & Noble came to my hometown, so it's a pretty significant period of time for Chabon to have chosen - the symbolic decline of the dream, the decline of the ability to pave your own way on these proverbial streets of gold. I mean, Dream of Cream turns out to be this highly coveted desert sold at a neighborhood bakery that will soon be closing its doors. A slice of cake that's moving quickly toward the obsolete.
There are three generations distinctly represented in the novel, each carrying its own parental/lost boy sort of baggage. Early on in this section, Archy contemplates his impending fatherhood against that of his own father - "... Luther Stallings still came around, paid his child support on time, took Archy to A's games... there was something further required of old Luther that never materialized, some part of him that never showed up, even when he was standing right beside Archy. Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars." Both men - Archy and Nat (though both had vastly different relationships with their fathers) - struggle to break free of the cycle themselves, while also dealing with a new, mysterious and hopeful generation.
Oh! And, like Joseph Kavalier and Sammy Clay, the original Chabon lost boys, I love how Julius Jaffe, a misunderstood homosexual teenager, reveres comic book heroes. Nice touch!
Jump around to the other blogs in the read along here.
A Treat for my Read Along Bloggers: Telegraph Avenue Pandora Station! (That I made, sitting here like a dork, scanning the pages for artists mentioned, while the boy sits on the couch attempting to read A Dance with Dragons... "What are you DOING?" he asks.)
Intrigued? Pre-order your copy here.