There are so many reasons for me to dislike this book. It’s relentlessly stuffed with references to American pop culture of the seventies – jazz, soul, funk – kung fu movies – blaxploitation – most of which were lost on me. (Though I got the Star Trek references!) It’s full of tricksy writing techniques and stunts, such as the cameo appearance of a pre-presidential Barack Obama. And it’s jam-packed with language that would make a docker blush.
But…but…it’s brilliantly written. Set in Oakland, California, I couldn’t decide whether Chabon is describing this piece of America as it really is or creating it anew, but either way he does it with such vividness and exuberance that it becomes a completely realised world with a past, present and uncertain future. There are issues of race, sexuality and gender here, all handled with a deft touch and a pleasing sense of optimism. One of Chabon’s most effective tricks is not to tell the reader straight out in the early part of the book which characters are black or white, but to leave us to gradually work it out from indirect references: a device that allows him to show the sameness of people rather than the differences and forces the reader to get to know them without letting preconceptions creep in.
“My God,” he said. “Please tell me you aren’t listening to ‘Kansas.’”
There was a small prog bin at Brokeland, but it spurned the pinnacles and palisades in favor of the dense British thickets, swarms of German umlauts. Wander into Brokeland hoping to sell a copy of ‘Point of No Return’ or, say, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (Manticore, 1973), they would need a Shop-Vac to hose up your ashes.
There is a huge cast of characters but we are mainly concerned with Archy and Nat, co-owners of Brokeland, a shop specialising in vinyl records, its existence threatened by the proposed building of a new megastore; their partners, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as midwives carrying out home-births – Gwen herself being massively pregnant too; and their teenage sons, Julie and Titus, on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and enthusiastically exploring their new-found sexuality. And then there’s Luther, Archy’s father, ex-star of ‘70s kung fu movies, ex-drug addict, down and almost out, but still dreaming of the comeback.
The plot is slight, based around Luther’s past, the survival of the shop and the problems of the midwifery practice. Instead, the book is strongly character-driven. There are no heroes and very few total villains here – mainly just flawed people trying on the whole to do their best, if only they could work out what that was. The relationships are the important thing: fathers and sons, marriages and lovers, friendships and shared histories that bind the community into one diverse, often divided, but ultimately cohesive whole. And Chabon’s characterisation is warm and affectionate, sometimes moving, often funny.
“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”
But above all it’s the language and the writing that create the magic here – Chabon gives a virtuoso performance and the tricks are performed brilliantly, (including the unbelievably soaring sentence that lasts for 11 pages, with every word precisely placed, flying over the whole community and dropping in and out of every character’s life). There is an incredible wordiness about the book, one word never used when fifty could do, but the words take on a rhythm and life of their own and become almost mesmeric after a while. I found I was often pausing to appreciate and applaud the sheer skill of the performance. And, for most of the time, I could silence the small voice inside my head that was telling me that, underneath the dazzle and razzmatazz, nothing much was happening and nothing profound was being said…
Wonderfully written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching a master wordsmith ply his trade almost outweighs the underlying lack of substance, but ultimately this novel just misses being truly great – though it’s so impressively done it takes a while to notice that. And although the destination may be a bit disappointing, the journey is breathtaking.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.