Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Transplant's Folly: The Failure of Racial and Cultural Profiling in Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue (not a Film By Ken Russell)

(East Bay candyheart chakra, Hooper's Chocolates, Telegraph Avenue Oakland. Now a board shop)

(Oh my where does time go?! My beautiful husband and I are planning a third honeymoon/vow renewal ceremony and are nearing our 1/2 decade anniversary alongside other romantic and wonderful things which are happening, including on Facebook where I just hit 43,000 likes a few days ago. Very exciting!

Thank you to all my fans all over the world, you make it happen. We've come so far  in seven years and I'm still not selling any ad space and spamming you with my panties for sale on Ebay or anywhere! I had time for some summer reading and the following is an extended version of my GoodReads review for Michael Chabon's  Fall 2012 novel 'Telegraph Avenue '. 

I find the book to be a glaring race fail and I am not the only one.

For starters Chabon comes off as a truly lovely person and all my friends love his earlier work. As a yummy mum myself, I enjoy his wife Aylet's ebullient maternal and eco-conscious based writing. As Chabon has many enviable qualities this book was an even bigger let down for me, as his celebrity and fortunes preceded him.  I'm very disappointed but not giving up and going on to read  "Summerland " next.  At the end of this review I explore what might have done with Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue" if it were a film by Ken Russell.  As harsh as the following review is, please don't get me wrong here-the man is a writing God-I'm just looking at this book and Chabon's style from a different angle than what is out there. From what I could see, apart from Michiko Kakutani and Attica Locke, 100% of upper tier of the msm and literary world who reviewed this book are white and barely acknowledged or confronted the graphic racial content in the book. Why? 

Update August 2nd 2013: I recently found a oped piece that Chabon penned  for the historically racist New York Times about what inspired Telegraph Avenue. Alongside  photos that attempt to brainwash the reader into believing that Chabon grew up in a mostly working class black/mixed progressive community (he did not, Columbia MD was a white created middle/upper middle class city purposefully integrated but not based on the reality outside its borders) there are some honest and authentic assertions about his own perceptions regarding the OJ verdict, race etc. And while he's patronizing (a NYT reader Rachel aptly wrote: "This essay strikes me as odd, partly because it assumes a monolithic response to the OJ verdict in the black community, and because it in fact assumes a monolithic idea of "understanding black people" in general." )  the overriding  belief that Chabon has regarding racial understanding feels genuine and heartfelt. 

Why then is Telegraph Avenue such an atrocious fail when it comes to race and class?!!

Those interested in joining the multi-racial and  generational Telegraph Avenue online reading group I'm putting together to do an extended look at the book please contact me. I'm hoping to have a Bay Area native progressive Jewish geologist , a secular Jewish/practicing Catholic/Joyce expert expat living in Poland, a Black music historian, a dominatrix/visual artist, a Marin born super mom/grandma, a Santa Rosa born Oakland social worker/musician (he loves and lives for birds  and as TA has a great bird character he's going to be in the "Chabon can do no wrong camp" for sure) and a few others join. You just know they are going to love the book and find absolutely no faults and drive me bat guano! This book has been above reproach by default and fawned over for too long. We've simply got to get real here! Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!)

TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon. A Review by Super Amanda

 (Sarte in a neo-retro doughnut T-shirt. Author Michael Chabon cruises Telegraph)

Viewed as a complete satire and a send up, Telegraph Avenue might actually work but as a piece of American social lit (however whimsical) it is a huge yerba mate goji-berry infused dud littered with an appalling number of racial stereotypes and odd attempts at James Joyce style free-flow. The names are all so similar (they change and shift sometimes in the same paragraph) that the book should have ideally come with a list of characters. Chabon is a wordsmith par excellence, overly micro managed and prone to using academic anatomy vocabulary but he still delights-just not with the over all concept of Telegraph Avenue. I held high hopes for this, my first Chabon book, and was let down. I grew up in the East Bay from birth (pre dot com), was on Telegraph every weekend as a kid/tween, moved away in tears at 14, visiting often. I eventually commuted for four years and then returned full time from 2002-2006 . In 2004 (the time period that TA is primarily set in)  I lived right off of Telegraph at Alcatraz and later 42nd. I have a great deal of emotional attachment, formative memories and  life experience first hand on this very road throughout much of my life.
(Chabon first, Puppet show second.  "What's the book called ?" someone asked me when I posted this on When Oakland Was Fun.  '"Telegraph Avenue" I replied "but you can't tell from the cover, can you?!")

And truthfully? I love the title and was shocked and impressed that someone thought of it first! Since about 2003, I've often seen myself on the cover of an imaginary album/CD called "Telegraph Avenue".  The photo blurry and pensive. All rock star wannabes like me dream up album concepts (real rock stars do this as well, this I can verify) this would be the "departure disc" and "nothing like my previous hard arena rock and dark sarcastic lyrics.'" '"Telegraph Avenue" aka Super Amanda Mach 2 with songs and vocals that recall Tom Waits, Gram Parsons, Willy DeVille, Bill Withers, Martha Davis,  Lennon's primal therapy album and the soundtrack to William Friedkin's "Cruising."  Sparse songs of dark reflection, space funk and soulful 3:00 am lyrics that describe how Prop 13, Reagan, the dot coms and various states of flux and social dissonance altered and permanently damaged my beloved SF/East Bay. Maudlin acoustic numbers about how I'll never get over having to move away when I was 14. Chabon's publishers have kitted the book cover out with a dizzying array of acid dipped hipster incarnations aka imitation Flying Eyeball style Fillmore Art. In less than a year the book has seen more variations in packaging than 'A Tale of Two Cities' has in the last fifty. Blaxploitation comic homages, album style art and merchandising mock ups of  "TA" characters add a very bold camp factor, making the whole concept akin to a record or film release with Michael Chabon as the rock star he truly is. So at least great minds think up PR alike!

      (First to arrive. 1971 Peruvian Acid soul band Telegraph Ave)

Thus, in this mostly negative review (offered in detail to add balance to the gushing and overwhelmingly fawning reviews which greeted this book in the MSM literary world) I have not forgotten the man's undeniable talent-few could. He's a wonderful writer. However it is dangerous and very naive to believe, as the reviewers who lionized Chabon for this book and it's overlying theme, that the aftermath ('broken pieces' according to lead character Archy Stallings) of a death or loss of community businesses in a low income area is somehow liberating and "very beautiful indeed" (LA review of books) for the reader to enjoy. Urban blight, murder, being low income etc are diseases that cut short lives, destroy families and kill dreams, they not a serendipitous 'gift' that leads to the neo-hippie concept of  "community as phoenix" (my words). People mistakenly have compared this book to "White Teeth" and "NW" by Zadie Smith. However, Smith was actually raised in the London area that she writes of while Chabon is not from the Bay Area, arriving very late in the game during the dot com boom. I'm certain Zadie Smith would vociferously defend TA but frankly having lived in both urban areas for almost equal amounts of time, I can say with authority that the experience of a black, non white or multicultural person or even a white person in London bears no resemblance to an upbringing in the Bay Area. London is decades in front of even the most liberal parts of the states in terms of race relations and somethings are simply not universal. For all of Chabon's dazzling talent and love of his new homeland, by anointing it a racial panacea of sorts he displays scant insight into what the real Telegraph Avenue was and is.

                                              (Telegraph Avenue-Berkeley side-today)

Thus the overlying flaw in Telegraph Avenue is that this is a non-native transplant's view of the Bay Area, post 1997 with all the generic Yelp locations (Fenton's, Joaquin Miller, Peets, Oliveto) name dropped. I will give Chabon credit for accurately referencing the niche Rather Ripped Records, moreover the wonderful Neibyl-Proctor Marxist Library but crucial cultural East Bay locations were overlooked, unknown to Chabon or "quiche-ified".  For all his love of the land, Chabon simply does not know the old school East Bay despite what appears to have been some extensive research to appear so. Telegraph is his petri dish not his stomping grounds. 70s icons were also strip mined eg: "Bit O'Honey" a popular 70s candy bar becoming a Black dive bar while Minnie Ripperton's name is given to a corporate blimp "owned by the fifth richest Black man in America.". I also felt via the jazz and some of the cultural references that he was overlaying the East Coast onto the Bay.  Unlike Richard Linklater's coming of age cult film "Dazed and Confused", a 1976 story set in Texas, Chabon mistakenly takes his 70s and tries to place it where it simply does not fit. Linklater's 70s was very different than the Bay Area's but by staying on his own ground as an artist he made it work and the film was actually very popular in Northern California. Thus Chabon would have perhaps been better off setting a 70s/2004 story back East where HE came of age in Maryland or perhaps writing of a large progressive family of transplants living in Elmwood circa 2004.

(Hoppe's old Heidelberg and T-shirt Orgy on Telegraph Ave. circa 1983 by the wonderful Brett Hampton)

Towards the middle part of the book, the structure of the already tricky conversations gets unbearable when a community meeting and then a related conversation become nearly unreadable in prose. And in an attempt to describe every nuance (at this point from the perspective of a wonderful African parrot named "58"), Chabon OVER reaches and one is yearning for a James Joyce/Quantum Physics Sf State NEXA class taught in Krakow Poland for some structural simplicity. That is at least when the obvious attempts to write like and audition for Quentin Tarantino are not making you roll your eyes. Speaking of Tarantino, "Django Unchained" which was released  a few months after this book, smashes many of the stereotypes that Chabon seems to accept about Black culture. My personal belief is that if Chabon had seen Django prior to the final edit of Telegraph Avenue, the book would have been much different. For all the cultural free flow and urban speak, Telegraph Avenue reads like a white liberal's unintentional self congratulatory parody of the multi-cultural Bay Area or to paraphrase my GoodReads friend Stephanie "inner city tourism". The bizarre tourist trade at Harlem's Sunday church services that Slate Magazine and others have covered  seems an apt cultural companion to this book, which also borders on the white upper middle class racially fetishistic well meaning auto-pilot of what Jello Biafra termed "bragging that you know how the n******* feel cold, and the slums got so much soul". I know this all sounds harsh but this style of art is actually encouraged by the both the liberal and conservative msm. I don't think a major publisher would touch anything else.

(The original line up of the East Bay Space rock hard rock jazz funk fusion prog band, Automatic Man. Yes, they were all that and much more. 1976)

So yes, without a doubt, the saddest part of TA is Michael Chabon's attempt to write from a Black person's perspective. It reads like a huge unintentionally patronizing fail, not unlike "The Confessions of Nat Turner" by William Styron which was to paraphrase Paul Robeson, Jr., "a white liberal's distortion". A reader on Slate called 'Criminal Black Man' responding to the well written but 'Chabon biased' piece by Tanner Colby  put it this way:

"Michael Chabon and other white boys who think it is somehow unfair they don't get to talk dumbly about race is not a lack of sense, but of sensibility. They have sense enough to know, in a literary world largely oriented toward a white, female, middle-class readership, any book by a white person with a "racial" element will generate its own buzz." and "One thing White Supremacists have learned and taught the rest of us is that when push comes to shove, Blacks and Browns have an easier time fighting among themselves than fighting against the white power structure... Colby mentions Richard Price and George Pelecanos like they're the gay uncles who raised him and Chabon to be race-busting white literary heroes. Price and Pelecanos had a different relationship with Black people than just seeing them on the playground, or eating at their house that time. Price and Pelecanos actually lived with and more importantly, conflicted with, Black people in a real-world, real consequences social space."

 I don't care for addressing anyone as "white boys" but nonetheless , despite being harsh, the words are succinct, applicable, honest and they speak about the very issues that thwart Chabon's racist utopia from coming true.

(East Bay punk band "Special Forces." The lead singer Orlando X, worked at the pre-chain Rasputin's on Telegraph and was bit of an unapproachable snob-at least to starry eyed kids. The band is legend.)

I'm white, I'm Italian American with two Southern Italian parents which is a darker shade of pale and has occasionally not translated into what Benjamin Franklin called "lovely white" in the US. I grew up with a father heavily involved in the record and music industry  (much of it RnB, Acid Funk and Rock). He was a session engineer on Roy Ayers "Red, Black and Green" as well as the Super group album "GO" among countless other music industry related projects. He also worked at a local cable channel called "Teleprompter"  in Oakland alongside low budget community shows like Soul Beat. My stay at home artist mother attended art and sculpture classes at CAL. The area of the East Bay, close to Berkeley where I grew up was then very conservative and openly anti-Black so being bohemians, my anti-racist parents were not active in our immediate community. Our car was a wrecked jalopy, I had few clothes and bills were often paid by selling books and records on Telegraph. Both of my parents were from the East coast and left the 'unmeltable ethnic'  side of being second generation Italians behind. I was raised with zero religious indoctrination and all races and beliefs being equal similar to Chabon's racial Utopian ethos. When my parents split,  I spent four nightmarish years in a backwards low income rural California area where they lynched two Gay men who founded a local Farmer's Market and there is still Klan who torch synagogues. Many of the school teachers and admins were openly racist, religious fanatics who would have been Daily Mail homepage features circa 2013. The few Black people lived literally on the other side of the railroad tracks in a place called "the hole". I could not get out of that backwards area fast enough, even skipping graduation to head back to the Bay. In the 90s, alongside a multi-racial group of people, I co-founded a Bay Area based non profit 501c3 dedicated to keeping the history of Paul Robeson alive. I also started travelling to the UK yearly becoming an expat in 2008. Recently I've been doing the paperwork process to attain Italian citizenship. My experiences regarding race and class are unique even among the the most unique.

(King of Old School.  East Bay or Frisco, Bill Graham was and will always be the patron saint and the spirit of the Bay Area before the dot com invasion. You know that invasion that is making it possible for me to blog right now? Bill Graham January 8, 1931 – October 25, 1991)

Other than a few aspects of local jazz legend Cochise Jones, NONE of the Black characters in Telegraph Avenue felt authentic to me in fact they were the classic stereotypes designed to make US readers comfortable in their ignorance not only about race but about the Bay Area. Michael Chabon's misappropriation of Black Bay Area culture I found incredibly important in that it shows, even in 2013, that even anti-racist and intelligent progressives are reflexively prone to racial fetishism and mindbogglingly tired stereotypes. This includes, as aptly pointed out by Professor Mark A. Reid in "Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen", ' ...the stereotypical response of blacks in horror films'. Archy becomes confused, irrational, unable to make few intellectual choices (or any at all) under pressure. There is also tardiness, the strong black woman, infidelity, homophobia, insolvency, felony criminal history, inarticulateness, overly ostentatious appearance, the over sexed Black buck, other woman Jezebel, dead beat dads, hair and nail obsession, filthy homes, body odor, animal negligence, speech affectations...pretty much every bad stereotype that exists of Blacks in film and popular culture, apart from "can they swim?" is found in kindly liberal Michael Chabon's book.

(Long before the alien bumperstickers. The first Automatic Man album. Music and art produced for Chris Blackwell's Island Records by my father who co wrote much of the songs, Cover and art painted by the late East Bay artist Dawin Zerio 1976)

It was odd to see educated people like Gwen and Archie acting "street" and unable to make sound, healthy decisions (eg: why would a nearly due pregnant woman abandon her home and comfort to sleep in a dank and dusty Kung Fu studio and leave her cheating husband with everything?) Whereas the white couple, Nate and his wife were very grounded, defiant and confident under stress, Archy and Gwen displayed an embarrassing lack of equanimity. Indolent Archy is intimidated into taking a ride in the big box big wig's luxury Zeppelin while Nate actually lets it go in a crazy act of drunk courage and heroic defiance. Nate stood up to authority while Archy wavered. Gwen displayed rage while Aviva stayed balanced.  When Gwen does finally focus and stand up for herself it is justifiably (but predictably) to sue over racist statements made by a white higher up at a local medical center. The decision making on her part takes pages and days.

(French fries are so much fun. Telegraph Avenue McDonalds. Still one of the relatively small number of major fast food chain restaurants in the greater North Oakland , Berkeley, Albany, Piedmont area.)

Julie wanted love while Titus clearly wanted sex and was mostly unable to express emotion. Black Titus augments his sexual experiences with homophobic slurs directed at both Julie and his parents, Nate and Aviva.  After being taken in by the Jaffe's , Titus is caught sneaking out at night and after a tense breakfast with Avia he agrees to follow the house rules and curfew. Upon doing so he then turns to Avia and states "Your boy's a little dick sucking faggot. Case you were wondering that ain't no lie." Her response is the accepting  "great way to build a foundation". In all his Bay Area reconnaissance and special ops research into candy bars and Star Trek terminology, Chabon forgot to talk to the kind of Bay Area mothers who actually would take a kid in off the street. Homophobic slurs in the breakfast nook over Entenmann's or La Farine would not be addressed with calm liberal adages. The only redeeming feature Titus is given by Chabon (are you ready for this?) is that he's always bathed, manicured, clean and well dressed! White Julie knows where his own personal sexuality falls and whom he is in love with though and the folks in the area know and accept that he's Gay. Yet with Titus' swaggering homophobia and closeted sexual acts with Julie always as the sub, Chabon dangerously implies that poor, at risk Black youth intrinsically lack the ability for self definition (sexually and other wise), confidence, evolved values, and the power to make personal choices beyond being semi-feral. This is a view also shared openly by Far Right, paleoconservative and Neo-Eugenics proponents such as American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor.  Chabon of course has the right (and apparently the carte blanche) to create whatever he wants and it is open to interpretation, I'm just shocked that so many people find accuracy in Chabon's prose and that he got it 'documentarily right' (Carolyn Kellog, Los Angeles Times) via the social realism in the book. In a media where saying the nword 45 years ago can bring down your TV show empire, no one in the msm has called Chabon, reputedly America's greatest living writer, on the bold racial nature of this one work. No one! Why?

     (Eat it. Promotional cakes from the official release party at Diesel books in Berkeley, California)

Yet it is Chabon himself who acknowledges this within the pages of this very book numerous times!! I feel like I'm late getting to the party and he realized what I did via this book ages ago. Is this an honest, brave move on his part? A way of saying "no more BS and skirting around race in post-Obama America"?  At one point towards the end, a Black character says something to the effect "you live a million dreams and they are all created by white people". This is a brilliant line but left unexplored. Or is Chabon's move just  "Uriah Heepish" ? "Just an 'umble observer/anthropologist trying to do me best sir, yer right white people, you can feel validated that you were correct all along about the ghetto and I'm humble enough to say we all shared in making this book happen, every color of the rainbow engages in this teachable moment..." Something in between perhaps? I'm not sure. Chabon has a sincere world vision of peace and racial harmony when you read his other works and the fail feels wholly unintentional but is that really excusable given how lionized he has become as a literary figure? This books seems to have pleased the msm/literary critics world which is almost 100% white. The only Black msm review I could find, Attica Locke, summed up the book in The Guardian with: "This is the Chabon I most recognize: writer as humanitarian." Chabon said afterwords to Spin that her "generous review" made him "really relieved." It would have been interesting to read other reviews by Black critics but they do not appear to exist in the msm or even the second tier. The only exception was Troy Patterson  reviewing for Slate who sums up my entire review in one sentence, writing that Chabon's "optimism about the human race proves mostly ingratiating and totally unsupportable in light of what we know about real-life humans." 

(The Hat. Alice Waters was yet to be a celebrity and stone fired pizza ovens were unknown when Straw Hat Pizza reigned over the East Bay alongside Lake Merritt's "Leaning Tower of Pizza") 

Of course when it comes to creating and writing Black characters well few white writers have the intrinsic empathy that Harper Lee (or even Quentin Tarantino) has. Both of the aforementioned artists were not from privilege whereas Chabon grew up from what I can see (regardless of any Bohemian aspects) solidly upper middle class. Ultimately it is Chabon's well off upbringing that by default cuts him off from truly understanding Oakland and the poorer side of Berkeley-not his race. Telegraph is partly "in the ghetto" to Chabon yet to most who grew up in Oakland,  lower Elmwood, Rockridge and Temescal were/are the very nice part of flatlands. Those areas are on the gradient away from East Oakland and West Oakland which are areas facing severe generational poverty and violent crime. Speaking of which "Dog Town", "Jingle Town" , "Ghost Town" etc those are all names dropped by transplants and were not in wide usage outside true Oaklanders until very recently. Even Glenview, Temescal, Maxwell Park and Millsmont all were unearthed and mainstreamed when the real estate bubble, and the transplant invasion occurred. "Adam's Point" is now known interchangeably as "Alice Arts" I'm now informed. The names grow more pretentious with each wave of transplants fooling themselves into thinking locals use these designations too.  One reader, dbrekke, remarking on the abysmally ignorant New Yorker piece by East Bay transplant  Matt Feeny summed up Chabon's class disconnect very clearly:

"Mr. Feeney, it's wonderful you're so taken with Oakland and write so warmly about it. It sounds like you've gotten an eyeful in Temescal and your lake neighborhood. Now, please go out and spend a few weeks hanging out at 82nd and International, and then tell us about the inspired work of God's diversity director. Get off of Lakeshore and Grand avenues and tour the flatland schools affluent Oaklanders shun, and tell us how segregation has been banished. Take a good hard look at where virtually all of the deadly violence that haunts the city is happening and who its victims are, then tell us again what civilization Oakland is ..."

Thus Chabon writing about Berkeley/Oakland is appears to be like that mechanic whom never owned a car.

             (The Temescal Area of Telegraph Avenue -Oakland side- by Joshua M. Moore)

And while his Telegraph Avenue has been described as "multi-cultural', this is erroneous as Chabon's TA is Black and White, not the very diverse, mixed area which it has been since about the mid 1960s. At about halfway through there is a 98 year old Chinese Martial arts instructor embarrassingly warmed over from a discarded Tarantino script who has appeared but her character like the two Hispanic characters and one Near East Asian Cabbie they are not explored in length. The Gay Julie and the Lesbian Kai are written as whiny submissives while the severely disabled man is viewed in complete contempt, not even given a name other than "Stephen Hawking voice box guy". Chabon's usage of what I'll call "Ebonics-lite" is embarrassing and coupled with his very weak grasp of Bay Area landmarks and history it is a bad combination. The 70s flashbacks are perhaps the most pallid, and incorrect in cultural literacy. He's an amazing when he writes about Jewish/European American culture via the character of Nate Jaffe (a transplant) and Aviva but the race of people East Bay born are beyond Chabon's reach and ability here.

(Fetishization? Homage? Both? The faux merchandise created by for the enhanced edition of Chabon's Telegraph Avenue by the brilliant artist Stainboy Reinel)

eg: Chabon has a Black home birth midwife yelling at a White doctor Lazar (named for the cult actor John Lazar perhaps?) in "Chimes Hospital" emergency room with a 'purple skittle on his butt' over the fact he thought the Ylang, ylang used in the home birth is "voodoo". Then the same doctor tells the mid wife "this is child birth it is not like conking your hair". A waiting room patient (presumable Black) lets out an "awww shit...." In reality Chimes was an old school community market on College and Keith (a pharmacy bearing the same name still exists a few minutes up the road at Alcatraz) which sat next to "Bizarre Bazaar" , the first and still the best semi-upscale vintage store the East Bay ever saw. Now Cactus Taqueria and Rockridge Flowers occupy the same space. I would put money on the fact that there are few to zero white MDs that know the term "conking your hair" unless they sat through multiple screenings of Spike Lee's Malcolm X.

(That screen could a tale unfold. The late great UC Theater on University. Words can't express how great this cinema was.)

And given all the loud "ghetto antics", Chabon would have you believe that East Bay Area circa 2004, was an episode of "Good Times" with loud choruses of Black voices shouting in unison "uh oh!" , "damn! she country y'all", and "oh yeah" emanating from unseen speaker boxes strategically placed throughout North Oakland. "Ibex faced" Ethiopian waitresses" administering blow jobs and quickies during the buffet hours was another cringe worthy fetish move as well. Kudos for anticipating the skittle(s) in a faux multi-cultural context though, that was a look into the future (though as the book was released post Trayvon Martin, I'm wondering who came first...) The pop culture outside of the splendid Jazz references feel off as well. Chabon appears to get Grady Tate, the Jazz and schoolhouse rock icon, confused with Grady WILSON, the character from "Sanford and Son" played by the late Whitman Mayo.

(Niebyl-Proctor Director Bob Patenaude and a fabulous friend at the Marxist library's reading room, Telegraph Ave)

The positive sides are that Chabon did get the Bay Area weather, the Emeryville docks, a safe house, the Port Chicago Disaster and even cooking put down on page very well and the musical references are smart though (once again) 95% of the tracks were not hugely popular in Oakland and Berkeley during the time period mentioned outside of jazz snob OCD vinyl purists. Traditionally were no proper Jazz-centric areas of the East Bay and nor was there a jazz scene  (Scott Amendola and other musicians making the SF/Bay Area their new home have worked to change all that though in recent years). Eventually towards the last third, the novel's structure steadily improves, you get used to the tired played out racial kitsch and the plot picks up with the music of Carole King's "Too Late"- a classic Bay Area theme if there ever was one. The prose becomes more fluid and the characters are finally fun and not baffling. Though I did have to ask myself if my attitude softened because the end was near.

(His soul goes marching on. Paul Robeson sings the National Anthem at the Oakland docks)

Finally I believe Ken Russell, having been given this book to create a treatment, would have done a huge evisceration of the tired racial and cultural imagery to create a musical screenplay very similar to his version of The Who's rock opera "Tommy"-that is if he had decided to touch it in the first place. For a screenplay, cutting through the pseudo realism dressed as social criticism in an urban setting with thick prose would be a battle for certain for a artist who felt that there was "simply too much reality about." And, lest we forget, this is a director who gave Tina Turner a sentient cinematic moment as a Black female artist via The Acid Queen in "Tommy" which out does anything the Blaxplotation film stars Luther Stallings or Valetta were given as characters/caricatures by Chabon. Tina Turner, in the middle of  "The Sounder 70s"  and serious works like Roots, was colour saturated velvet camp and rock goddess incarnate. Exultation not exploitation.

(After school. Before Whole Foods and  taro root chips. Before organic corn, oven baked fries and childhood obesity, Bay Area kids ate BBQ tortilla chips by the bag from the local Granny Goose or Laura Scudders factory)

And Ken would have made many people angry by showing the shallowness of romanticizing the ghetto, playing the whole thing as a send up but he also would have created a beautiful, magical view through the parrot and the eyes of teenage boys for certain (few directors have understood and treated with decency GLBT characters like Ken Russell has) and perhaps (sin of sins) swapped the jazz for classical. The talented Cameron Crowe is reportedly slated to helm the film which is worrisome as he's kept his films even more lily white than Woody Allen, with "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" being the most glaring (and once again) unintentional example. After the racial rainbow world of the 1970s, Crowe  (along with John Hughes)  ushered in the teen film genre into the 'mighty whitey plastic' 80s with a clear message: "teens are now segregated again- even musically. Blacks like soul and are poor. Whites like rock and are middle class." I truly believe as a film, that Telegraph Avenue should only be done as a musical. Ideally with a preview onstage in London's West End , a full book etc first and ideally not directed by Cameron Crowe.

(Tina Turner as The Acid Queen in Ken Russell's film of TOMMY)

Ken Russell I'm certain would agree that one can be inspired by a work of art by wanting to point out its obvious inaccuracies (in this case about Bay Area race and culture). Ken sought that out via harpooning Richard Strauss, the Catholic Church and the dangerous precedent of romantic hooker movies like 'Pretty Woman."  An artist's bio film on Chabon by Ken would have been something to see as well and certainly as interesting as any of his books. Chabon has a great deal to give to the world. And if a book or film inspires outrage instead of indifference then it has at least something important going on and Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon is important.  It will be wonderful to do a reading group with other Bay Area natives and some North Bay friends including one pal Cliff whom is not only Black but ran a record store. I hope to come back to this and reread it at some point, perhaps trying to harder to seek out Chabon's optimism which was lost on me.
(Angel's Flight Chic. Handsome author Michael Chabon in a 1970s style shirt)

Again, if this was not lauded as social lit it would be a different case but not one literary reviewer found fault with this work and that is not healthy in a so called post racial media where an attorney general asks for the ability to speak honestly about race. Chabon is an amazing writer but in this book he's all skill and no authenticity (remember there are many opera singers but only one Tom Waits). And I do hope that one day a true Bay Area born native nails a book about the area pre and, letting the literary world truly see what an amazing place it was and in some ways will always be. As long as native Bay Area torch bearers remain stalwart as to ward off erroneous and kitschy assumptions about East Bay history and culture that starry eyed transplants like Michael Chabon tend to bring with them (alongside crippling rents and housing prices) Telegraph Avenue will always stay hella real and on the good foot.

(Pre-Tazo Tea. Old school cooler, East Bay style.)

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Blogger grace said...


You are a great reviewer. Truly, an excellent writer.

4:29 AM  
Blogger Amanda and SuperAmanda™ said...

THANKS GRACE!! i'm only blogging a few times a year now as being a mum has me busy so I had to make it LENGTHY!

4:16 AM  
Blogger par.nordstrom said...

Yum writin here , Amanda ! But ye sound none too impressed by dis Chabon dude ? Think I shall stick to my good ole S.F. books written by Twain , Jack London , Kerouac , Cassidy et al. / Been so long since I lived in S.F. meself , so I´ve started forgettin da outlay of da city . I sorta remember walkin Telegraph Road many times but can´t exactly place it . Is it da street leadin up to Coit Tower ? No , couldn´t possibly be ?
P.S. Nice wid da impressive pic of Robeson towerin over da crowd !Glory ! Glory !

Huggies ,

4:19 PM  

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