Thursday, November 08, 2012

Telegraph Avenue

I do not “read” a lot of audio books, maybe six or seven a year, but I have long believed that the “reader” of an audio book is the most influential factor in determining whether the experience will be an enjoyable one – or not.  No matter the author or the quality of the writing, an audiobook’s narrator still has the ultimate power to make it or break it.  I have, in fact, on a few occasions, junked an audio book in favor of a printed copy because I had grown bored with the voice droning on and on for what started to seem like forever (remember, some audio books total more than 20 CDs and require close to 25 hours listening time). 

This being the case, audio book publishers should be lining up at the door of Clarke Peters because, as he proves with Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, this man is good.  Peters has such a way of breathing life into characters, varying voices and accents, and making it all sound so alive, that I hated to see the book end – despite it being almost 19 hours long.

Telegraph Avenue is as much about a place, the Brokeland neighborhood between Berkeley and Oakland, as it is about the people who live there.  It is the summer of 2004, and things are about to change for the book’s central characters.  Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, one of them black, the other white, are best friends and business partners who run Brokeland Records, one of a dying breed of record shops that still specialize in reselling classic vinyl record albums from the past.  The record store, being as much a neighborhood hangout as a business, attracts a regular crowd of hipsters, amateur philosophers, local politicians, and old men who remember when the building was home to the best barbershop around.   But now, the business, already on shaky financial ground, is being threatened by a former NFL great who hopes to open one of his Dogpile megastores just up the street from Brokeland Records – an event that the record shop cannot hope to survive.

Clarke Peters Doing His Magic
Brokeland Records is not a business that will ever make its owners rich, so Archy and Nat depend on their wives, Gwen and Aviva, to help make ends meet.  The women are midwives in a respected, and successful, partnership of their own that they call Berkeley Birth Partners.  Gwen and Aviva love what they do and have no shortage of clients, but they are suffering a professional crisis of their own and the future of Berkeley Birth Partners is in jeopardy.

Telegraph Avenue is a big book, one filled with numerous supporting characters with stories of their own.  Among them are Archy’s father, a former blaxploitation film star on the hustle; Titus Joyner, the son Archy did not know existed before he showed up on Archy’s doorstep; Julius Jaffe, Nat’s sometimes gay, sometimes not-gay son; Gibson Goode, ex-NFL superstar quarterback and “fifth-richest black man in America; and a famous jazz musician whose wake is held in the record shop, open casket and all.  There is a lot going on here, so much that readers might be distracted from the main storyline at times, but it is one hell of a story – especially if you let Clarke Peters read it to you.

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