The Short Version: Set in late 2004, this is the story of a changing world and two men who have to finally decide to grow up. Nat & Archy run Brokeland Records, a vinyl shop on Telegraph Ave in Oakland, and they’re facing dire straits: a big-box competitor is moving in down the street, Archy’s pregnant wife just found out that he sort of cheated on her, Nat’s wife is trying to hold their midwife business together after a bumpy birth, and the boys of the family (actual boys) might be in love. It’s life in the early Aughts, just as we realized everything had already changed.
The Review: Through the first half – more than half – of this book, I kept finding myself with crossed arms, rebuffing the book’s advances. It felt like a happier, most West-Coast version of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude – and considering Chabon and Lethem exist as towering contemporary pillars of Modern Literary Fiction, it just felt… unnecessary isn’t quite the right word – but it just felt like a safer attempt to tell a similar story. But then something strange happened. Around page 350 (specifically at the top of pg. 352 in my copy, which is an ARC, so don’t hold me to it), I was on the train and said, “…well, shit.” and smiled – because the book got me. I finally just let myself open up to the warmth of the book and found that I did, in fact, enjoy it. It lacked the imaginative ambition of the Lethem book but could, in fact, exist in tandem with it: that book’s more family-friendly, Thanksgiving-release sibling.
That’s not to say that this book lacks in imagination or panache. Coming up on nearly a year since its release, it’d be hard to have heard of this book without having heard of the 12-page-sentence, from the point of view of a parrot, that sits squarely in the middle of the text. Is that little dash of virtuosity necessary? Not even remotely. Is it interesting, stylistically? Sure. There’s also a cameo – an interesting albeit completely eye-rollingly “REALLY?!” moment – from then-state-senator Obama at a rally for Kerry. He talks to Gwen and grooves to Nat & Archy’s band and it’s a lovely moment… but it was also way too artificial. It didn’t need to be there – and therein lies the biggest problem that I had with the first two-thirds of this book: so much of it felt interesting from an objective standpoint but in the context of the book I just sort of kept wondering “why?” – and that’s never a great way to read a book.
There’s a lot of stuff about Fathers & Sons here – but I also feel like Chabon doesn’t really hit his stride in that regard until the end of the book, as all of the plots begin to weave together towards the obvious ending (sorry if this spoils anything but, I mean, it’s like Chekhov’s gun: you open the book with a ridiculously pregnant lady, you can guess there’s going to be a birth). Part of that feels like it’s because the book isn’t actually about fathers and sons but rather about fathers who suddenly realize – belatedly – that they need to grow up. Nat and Archy, while certainly grown men, do some pretty stupid and adolescent stuff. There’s one thing that Nat does, in fact, that not only feels out of character for him but really rather out of character for someone approaching middle age, unless that person is a character in a far more comedic (bordering on farcical) story than the one told here. And so I guess my biggest concern with this book, the thing that stopped me from enjoying it for the first 350 pages, was the fact that these characters felt… ill-defined. There’s almost a writing exercise quality to the setup – “two couples, one black and one white; the men own a record store, the women are midwives; the setting is Oakland in late 2004. Go!” It lacks a sense of organic naturalism that the book otherwise seems to imply.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The thing is, this isn’t a bad book. I wanted more from it and it felt, at times, a little too Writerly – but the language is gorgeous and the man clearly knows how to make a sentence flow like jazz. And, like I said, a particular moment that began with a laugh and ended with a wry smile on my part found me totally wrapped up in it. I had pretty low expectations going in – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has actually decreased in my estimation in the intervening years – and this book far surpassed all of them. It was a perfectly enjoyable read, once it won me over – but it was nothing extraordinary, not even a little.