Review: Michael Chabon joyfully sets down on ‘Telegraph Avenue’

Author Michael Chabon.

Author Michael Chabon.

(Ulf Andersen / Harper Collins / Getty Images)

Telegraph Avenue
A Novel

Michael Chabon
Harper: 480 pp, $27.99

“runtimeTopic">"Telegraph Avenue” is so exuberant, it’s as if Michael Chabon has pulled joy from the air and squeezed it into the shape of words. A vibrant affection for a place, time and culture — 1970s Oakland/Berkeley, blaxploitation films and funky jazz — feeds that energy, but there’s more. His sentences spring, bounce, set off sparklers, even when dwelling on mundane details: A palm tree “hikes its green slattern skirts”; a street cut off by a freeway “had a dazed feel, a man who had taken a blow to the head staggering hatless down from Telegraph, face-planting at the overpass.”

Telegraph Avenue, the dividing line between hippie-progressive Berkeley and historically black Oakland, home of the Black Panthers, is where Brokeland Records is located.


The novel turns around the store’s owners — “moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned” Archy Stallings, who is black, and high-strung musician Nat Jaffe, who is white — and their families. Much to Archy’s displeasure, his father, Luther Stallings, has just resurfaced; he was briefly a blaxploitation star before drugs got the better of him.

The store, which specializes in jazz from John Coltrane to Charles Kynard and those less well known, is a neighborhood place where an aging keyboard player, an undertaker-slash-city councilman and a dorky white lawyer regularly stop to shoot the breeze. But it’s in trouble. Since the story is set in 2004, it’s not online downloads that threaten Brokeland’s future but the coming of a new entertainment complex developed by Gordon Goode, an ex-NFL star turned music mogul businessman (think Magic Johnson plus Dr. Dre).

Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” a novel that borrowed from the real history of early comics. “Telegraph Avenue” is grounded in a very different but equally specific artistic moment — the music and films of black America in the 1970s — which Chabon approaches with all-embracing fandom.

Does it matter that Chabon is a white baby boomer writing about a predominantly black culture? His white lawyer speaks in awful, trying-too-hard ghetto clichés, something Chabon avoids when writing about black families, music and movies. As a white book reviewer I don’t feel qualified to say he gets it documentarily right, but as far as the closed universe of “Telegraph Avenue” is concerned, he’s on solid ground.

Like Archy and Nat, wives Gwen and Aviva work together as a top Bay Area midwife team. Gwen comes from a long line of high-achieving African American women, and Aviva is “the Alice Waters of midwives” (praise not to be taken lightly in Berkeley). Early in the novel, a home birth goes off the rails and Gwen lashes out at the hospital establishment that fails to give them enough respect. Her outburst puts their practice in jeopardy.

Chabon comes at the plot obliquely, jumping into a moment of action before explaining who or how or why. The book opens with two teenage boys flying down the street, one on a bicycle, black, and the other, white, behind him on a skateboard. It’s beautiful, poetic and serves as a prelude while also foreshadowing the partnership between Archy and Nat. Later we realize those weren’t just any boys, they were part of the story all along.

The boy on the skateboard, Julius, is Nat and Aviva’s artistic, eclectic son; he goes by Julie. He’s enamored with Titus Joyner, the boy on the bike, who makes a late appearance. Titus is handsome, close-mouthed and sometimes aggressive, and turns out to be Archy’s long-neglected son.

The novel often pairs hard and soft: Gwen is fiery, Archy is a sweetheart; Aviva is strong, Nat is neurotic. The relationships are nuanced, with trade-offs, cruelties and sudden acts of forgiveness. It is full of real emotion, fractured tempers, canyons of regret and big-hearted men breaking into tears.

All the way along, Chabon plays with words. His characters’ surnames are playfully packed with information: Archy Stallings is a 36-year-old who can’t grow up. Walter Bankwell has made some money. Gibson Goode is ironically named — he’s so bad he soars a wildly expensive custom black zeppelin over Oakland like Darth Vader.

There are allusions to Thomas Pynchon, the fictional African nation in the Marvel Comics universe called Wakanda, the music of dozens of jazz artists, B-movies; the piles of cultural references include an appearance by Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. These flourishes emphasize that the novel, while realistic, is a creative work existing in conversation with — sampling, even — other works of art.

Describing the way a soundtrack runs constantly in the background for Nat, Chabon points out the homonym: “Gnat. In his ear, born with it. Hearing the current of his own blood, neural crackle, the omnipresent pulse of the worldwide electro-industrial power and information grid, the unheard music. His head a dish to pull down cosmic background radiation, sines and signals, diminished sevenths coming through the wires of time and space to vibrate secret membranes. Hearing something.” The play on words — Nat/gnat — turns into a description of creativity, for musicians directly and for writers too.

As there are parallels between making music and writing, there are clear parallels between the predicament faced by Brokeland Records and the challenges that currently confront independent bookstores. How does a store that everyone says is outdated survive? How do the choices we make affect the communities in which we live? And how can creative people continue to do and celebrate the work they love?

Fans have been waiting five years since Chabon’s bestselling novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” an alternative-history detective story set in a Jewish community that settled in Alaska after WWII. That book’s world was so distant from our own that it won major science fiction prizes, the Hugo and the Nebula. “Telegraph Avenue” is fantastic but in a different way: It returns to the realism of his earliest novels, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and “Wonder Boys,” with dizzying language, a delight in process and paragraph after paragraph of word-drunk riffs.