Swaths of the book suffer from a compulsion to pump every paragraph full of clever metaphors that scream, “Look at me!,” cultural allusions that would send Dennis Miller rushing to Wikipedia, and references to classic sci-fi and comic books that show the imprint of Chabon Industries™ as opposed to being rooted in the substance of the story. Consider this typical passage in which an undertaker walks into Brokeland Records:
“In the shade of a wide-brimmed black hat whose vibe wavered between crime boss and Henry Fonda in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ pin-striped gray-on-charcoal three-piece, black wing tips shined till they shed a perceptible halo, Chan Flowers came into the store. Slid himself through the front door, ineluctable as a final notice from the county. Straight-backed, barrel-chested, bowlegged. A model of probity, a steady hand to reassure the grieving, a sober man — a grave man — solid as the pillar of a tomb. A good dose of gangster to the hat to let you know the councilman played his politics old-school, with a shovel in the dark of the moon. Plus that touch of Tombstone, of Gothic western undertaker, like maybe sometimes when the moon was full and Flowers & Sons stood empty and dark but for the vigil lights, Chan Flowers might up and straddle a coffin, ride it like a bronco.”
Does that verbal and cultural dexterity make your heart soar? Or do you find yourself wishing you had a piece of literary kryptonite to sap some of this manic energy? There’s much to enjoy here, but in some sections I felt alternately panicked and bored, glancing ahead, trying to connect a subject to a verb, struggling to catch the sense of the sentence like a man reaching for the railing in a dark stairwell.
I wish I weren’t so conflicted about recommending this novel. I love its sensitive and comic treatment of parenthood. Its exploration of the tensions between whites and blacks, between commercialism and nostalgia, between our dreams and our responsibilities is wonderful. But “Telegraph Avenue” often feels as though it requires more labor than it deserves.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles. At 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 30, Chabon will be at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax as part of the Fall for the Book festival.