Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Harper, 465 pages, $28

Michael Chabon’s latest work of fiction traces the slow death of a used record shop in an Oakland, California, neighborhood in 2004. In the age of the Internet, that might seem a too-small and too-familiar story for a 465-page novel by so celebrated a writer of literature. But as in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Chabon in “Telegraph Avenue” creates a world writ large, this time by grappling with themes of race and identity, politics and community, and friendship and family.

All that and more is packed into this dense and layered book about a mixed-race business partnership between two longtime friends and music bandmates, who are in many ways a study in comic contrast. Nat Jaffe is a skinny white Jew filled with nervous energy and a simmering anger that occasionally results in verbal outbursts ‏(at all the wrong people‏) and impulsive behavior.

It is his fortune to be married to Aviva, an intelligent, and intelligently drawn, Jewish woman, who reins him in without smothering him. Archy Stallings, on the other hand, is black, tall and broad, and lives with his very pregnant African-American girlfriend Gwen, even as he cheats on her; and though phlegmatic in temperament and style, he is burdened by a suppressed but aching shame, mostly having to do with betrayal and paternal abandonment, of him and by him.

In these perfidies the heart of the book lies. For Archy, “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” ‏(writings Aurelius addressed to himself as a guide for self-improvement‏) is a virtual Bible. And after rereading the book a 93rd time, Archy thinks, “You never would get through to the end of being a father, no matter where you stored your mind.” Fathering, Archy had come to believe, “imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measureable by clocks: open ended, eternal and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.”

It will not surprise readers of Chabon’s essay collection “Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son” that the nature of fatherhood is a dominant leitmotif in “Telegraph Avenue.” But there is also much attention paid here to Gwen and Aviva, friends and midwife co-owners of Berkeley Birth Partners, and to the Jaffes’ adolescent son Julius, a.k.a. Julie − “it could be a girl’s name” − who is in the process of coming out as gay and is in the first throes of love with Titus, Archy’s unacknowledged and mostly forgotten 14-year-old boy.

The story, though sluggish in the first 100 pages or so, unwinds and rewinds in Dickensian fashion in the fictitious, but aptly named California neighborhood of Brokeland. Much of the action takes place on Telegraph Avenue, “the ragged fault line where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted,” where the bourgeois bohemian land of soy lattes, free-range chickens and Tantra yoga connects with a working-class, predominantly black section of Oakland. Brokeland had been struggling economically well before 2004, when the economic downturn becomes even sharper, threatening the entire neighborhood, along with Brokeland Records, an authentic community institution where colorful locals hang out ‏(but rarely buy‏) all day.

Proprietors Nat and Archy are so in thrall to used recordings of soul music, funk and jazz, that while going through a dead man’s collection, they question, with a kind of Yiddish vibrato, the quality of an afterlife without vinyl. “What kind of heaven is that, you can’t have your records?” And from their point of view, disaster looms when Gibson “G Bad” Goode, a former NFL quarterback turned retail mogul and “the fifth richest black man in America,” looks for approval to build a nearby shopping multiplex, including a three-story media emporium that will surely take down Brokeland Records for good. The community is divided in its response because Goode’s reputation for effectively “revitalizing” neighborhoods elsewhere, true or not, precedes him. He is also not above intimidation and strongman tactics, which are carried out by a small entourage of heat-packing acolytes.

Enter the owner of a funeral parlor, the powerful African-American politico Councilman Chan Flowers, a man with a little-known murderous Black Panther past, who supports Goode’s plans. Luther Stallings, Archy’s long absent father and a former star of blaxploitation cinema, is also back in the picture, and he has the goods on Flowers, in the form of a bloody glove from a decades-old Batman Halloween costume. These figures interact in one interesting way or another with many of the other equally unusual characters in the story, including a jazz legend named Cochise Jones who sports a talking parrot on his shoulder; a 90-year-old Chinese woman and kung fu specialist named Irene Jew; and a down-on-his-luck Jewish lawyer and well-intentioned black wannabe, affectionately tagged Moby because he is so big and so white.

Tarantino galore

Chabon’s novel is complex in its characterizations and in its plotting, even brilliantly so, which is why I found myself irritated and frustrated time and again by the author’s distracting pileups of pop cultural references.

Chabon’s obsession with the minutia of jazz, rock, funk and music history generally, and with film and film theory ‏(enough with the Tarantino references!‏), and even with the superheroes of the 1970s, can be part of the charm of reading him. This time, however, as in parts of “Kavalier and Clay,” his passion for displaying the breadth and depth of his knowledge of detail, often trivial, can only be called the literary equivalent of a collector’s fetishism. “Telegraph Avenue” is so laced with these diversionary asides that you may become, as one of the protagonists proclaims, “sick to death of mold-smelling, dust-covered, scratched-up, skipping, wobbly old vinyl records,” as well as with talk of long-forgotten movies and faded and crumbling comic books.
“Telegraph Avenue” is simply overwritten. Much is saved, however, by the quality of Chabon’s literary craftsmanship and the seriousness of the themes he tackles ‏(accompanied by laugh-out-loud dialogue and scene description‏).

Chabon has the most mellifluous prose style among a growing group of talented Jewish-American writers, including Jennifer Egan, Austin Ratner, Joshua Cohen and Dara Horn. On the very first page of “Telegraph Avenue,” Chabon writes that, “Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby...” And throughout the rest of the book, Chabon continues to demonstrate a mastery at stitching together elegantly detailed sentences as well as an enviable ability to construct poignant, poetic and powerful paragraphs.

We read, for example, that by late morning on a given day, “The fog had burned off, leaving only a softness as tender as a memory from childhood, to blur the sunlight that warned the sprawl of rosemary and purple salvia along the fragrant sidewalk, and fell in shifting shafts through the branches of the monkey-puzzle tree,” and as we approach the conclusion of the book, we learn that “Gwen found herself in possession, coolly palmed in her thoughts like a dollar coin, of the idea that she was about to bring another abandoned son into the world, the son of an abandoned son.

“The heir to a history of disappointment and betrayal, violence and loss. ... All the anger that Gwen had been feeling ... feeding on it like a sun, using it to power her engines, to fund her stake in the American dream − struck her for the first time as a liability. As purely tragic. There was no way to partake of it without handing it on down the generations.”

As the pressures of neighborhood “development” continue to threaten Brokeland Records, and with it Archy and Nat’s friendship; as Gwen’s cynicism and anger increase, in the face of a lawsuit over a homebirth gone wrong, and in response to the hurts and psychological tortures of being black, and as even her loving connection to Aviva begins to fray, Nat ponders the difficulties of authentic interracial relationships: “For years his life had balanced like the world of legend on the backs of great elephants, which stood on the back of a giant turtle; the elephants were his partnership with Archy, and Aviva’s with Gwen, and the turtle was his belief that real and ordinary friendship between black people and white people was possible, at least here, on the streets of the minor kingdom of Brokeland, California.”

Now, however, “that foundational pileup of beliefs was tottering ....” not because there was any “tragic misunderstanding, rooted in centuries of slavery and injustice,” or because anyone was reverting to atavistic racial tribalisms. Nor did differences in class and education among the four of them matter much. Both Aviva and Archy had been raised by blue-collar relatives who worked hard to send them to college. “The white guy was the high school dropout, the black woman upper-middle-class and expensively educated. It just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to try to hold up a world.”

Losses restored

While Chabon is not so naive as to think we have entered a post-racial world of sharing and caring peoples and communities, his empathic book is instructive in the best sense of that word, and for that reason far less dark than one might expect. Yes, Archy near the end of this overly long but marvelous tale seems to have grown tired of Nat, and of Gwen and her pregnancy, with “all the unsuspected depths of his insufficiency that it threatened to reveal.”
And yes, Brokeland Records is finished, and racial and class tensions persist. Still, Archy ‏(and Titus, too‏) will be there, even if just a little late, when Gwen gives birth. And he and Nat appear to be on the brink of reuniting in an online effort to link themselves to vinyl-record lovers worldwide, to collectors in “pursuit of the lost glories of a vanished world,” solitary men united in the chase to repossess those small pieces of everything they had ever lost, in the hope that regaining them would be existentially restorative.

It is not, however, the nostalgic collectors who find their losses restored in “Telegraph Avenue,” but the alienated fathers and sons. Paternity, not artifacts, has the power to fill the void. In the end there is a remarkable synthesis of irresolution and tenuous but recognizable hope. Perhaps in the work of Michael Chabon, we have entered a post-postmodern literary world. May it be so.

Gerald Sorin, a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New
Paltz, is author of “Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent” and a biography of Howard Fast, to be published next month.