Michael Chabon has long moved easily between the playful, heartfelt realism of novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys and his playful, heartfelt, more fantastical novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. In his new novel, Telegraph Avenue, he has declared his stylistic freedom again, turning the techniques of fantasy fiction to a comedy of manners. In some ways, Telegraph Avenue, the story of the ordinary lives of two imperfect, rather ordinary families, is as much a fantasy as Kavalier & Clay or even The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It might, oddly, be his most original book as well.
Chabon sees the shins of a beautiful woman glow “like the bells in a horn section.” A pregnant woman’s thighs peel “away from each other with a sigh, like lovers reluctant to part.” An old man’s advice to a young man falls like “rain against an umbrella.” A Hammond B-3 organ is “diesel-heavy, coffin-awkward, clock-fragile.” The smell of fried chicken wafts by as a “breeze off the coast of the past.” Chabon’s worlds are lyrical places, and they often include those sweet breezes from the coast of the past.
Telegraph Avenue itself blows in from Oakland, California, in the 1970s via 2004. Set in the recent past, the novel is driven by an unabashed nostalgia for a slightly less recent past. And like much of Chabon’s work, it celebrates not only the object of its nostalgia—the music and Afros and leisure suits and muscle cars and kung fu blaxploitation movies of the funky Seventies—but also the pleasure of nostalgia itself.
Chabon is an extraordinarily generous writer. He is generous to his characters, to his landscapes, to syntax, to words, to his readers—there is real joy in his work. The act of nostalgia—of looking back with reverence and yearning and regret—is another facet of this generosity, like the lavish attention a collector shows his collection.
And Chabon seems particularly drawn to collectibles, the ephemera of modern pop culture. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it was comic books. In Telegraph Avenue, the material objects of Chabon’s nostalgic gaze are the vinyl records of funk musicians and what they represent—a particular moment of vigorous, flourishing black culture. Both ambitious and light-hearted, the novel is a touching, gentle, comic meditation on the mess that is racial relations in the United States and on what fathers can and cannot pass on to their sons. It also includes some of the best writing about women I’ve read in recent years.
Which brings us to science fiction. In essays and interviews, Chabon has been eloquent on behalf of genre fiction, science fiction in particular. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was an ode to comic book superheroes, magicians, Houdini-like escape artists. Chabon was one of the writers for Spiderman 2 as well as the ill-fated fantasy film extravaganza John Carter—he loved the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a child. What is remarkable about Telegraph Avenue is that Chabon has transferred that boyish curiosity and imagination, that willingness, perhaps need, to create and make real worlds he does not and cannot inhabit, that loony science-fiction obsession with logical detail and preposterous premise, into a novel that has nothing to do with science fiction—that in fact deals with some of our most uncomfortable facts. In his new novel, he has trained his love and understanding of a very white, very male genre—science fiction—onto the universe of a black community and the very female land of midwives and pregnancy.
Telegraph Avenue is set in the alternative universe of Northern California. It begins in a store that sells vintage vinyl records. Situated in what was once a barbershop on Telegraph Avenue in West Oakland, “Brokeland Records was nearly the last of its kind, Ishi, Chingachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon.” One of the two owners, a former helicopter electrician in the Gulf War and sometime bass player, Archy Stallings, is round, Buddha-like in girth, and black. His partner, Nat Jaffe, is a skinny, vaguely bipolar, white Jew. Archy and Nat share the store and an obsessive love of Seventies funk jazz, of musicians like Donald Byrd and Johnny Hammond, and of all things vinyl.
They are, in other words, out of place. As are their wives. Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks are partners, too. They are midwives with a practice called Berkeley Birth Partners, which caters to privileged counterculture mothers, the ones who live in Berkeley and want their birthing “experience” to be bathed in incense and what Gwen cannot help thinking of as “hippy-trippy whoop-de-doo.” Aviva, the “Alice Waters of Midwives,” is the politic one of their partnership,
skilled in every manner of wheedlings and wiles. It was a skill that was called upon to one degree or another almost every time they went up against hospitals or insurance companies….
Gwen, with her “virtuoso hands…, freaky-big, fluid as a couple of tide-pool dwellers, cabled like the Golden Gate Bridge,” has a relationship toward authority that is more complicated than Aviva’s. “She could not as blithely subordinate her pride and self-respect to the dictates of hospital politics…. But Gwen knew, the way a violinist knew tonewood, how to work it.”
This is a novel set not in the deep racial divides of America, but on a border as bright and defined and easily blurred as a chalk line, a place where people meet and so inevitably make mistakes. A place where everybody is out of place. The partnership and friendship between Nat and Archy is as natural and as unlikely as the community itself.
On the day the novel begins, Gwen is thirty-six weeks pregnant. She catches Archy cheating on her, then, devastated but dutiful, heads to a delivery in Berkeley. The parents are faintly ridiculous. Their little girl is there, bearing a birth plan she has decorated “in four colors of marker with flowers and vines and a happy-looking fetus labeled BELLA,” and waiting to watch her slippery sibling appear. When the placenta does not follow, the mother is rushed by ambulance to the hospital. Although the mother is fine, the midwives are dressed down by the doctor on call as “sage-burning” practitioners of “voodoo.” Suddenly, their privileges at the hospital are in jeopardy and “like a pair of shit-caked work boots, they were being left outside on the porch.” This earnest, anachronistic partnership is faced with the prospect of going out of business.
For Brokeland Records, equally earnest and anachronistic, the threat is gentrification: the imminent arrival two blocks away of a megastore run by Gibson Goode, known as G Bad, the former all-pro quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the fifth-richest black man in America. A ten-screen Cineplex, a food court, a gaming arcade, a twenty-story retail galleria—the Dogpile Thang, as the complex will be called—will radically change the neighborhood. According to Goode and his supporters, the store will revitalize the area. According to Archy and Nat and the other local merchants, it will destroy the character of the place. It will also put Brokeland Records out of business.
This struggle for the future and character of a neighborhood, a staple of the pre-2008 boom times, carries with it the faint trace of a different struggle: the fierce racial tensions of the 1960s and early 1970s that led to the violence and radicalism of the Black Panthers, born and bred in Oakland. Chabon touches glancingly on that time of rage: a botched murder in 1973, motivated more by personal ambition than ideology, by a young Black Panther named Chan Flowers. Flowers later turns up as the powerful, proper city councilman for Oakland, Chandler B. Flowers, owner and director of Flowers and Sons Funeral Home. He has left that violent time behind him as quickly as he could, and so, in a way, does Chabon. Political fury and revolutionary passion interest him here only insofar as they twist themselves out of shape and into the form of Chan Flowers, a character of delicious comic malevolence. Flowers, smart, self-serving, and thuggish as a renegade revolutionary, is smart, self-serving, and thuggish as a respected councilman.
Chan is not the only citizen of Telegraph Avenue who carries with him the faint recognizable scent, like that of mothballs, of the Sixties. The citizens who turn up at a meeting to save the neighborhood from Gibson Goode’s commercial invasion are perfectly rendered in their Northern California liberal glory. But in one of the stylistic paradoxes of this superb writer, Chabon uses idiosyncratic detail after idiosyncratic detail to render them universal: a local variety of the same citizen who turns up at every local civic meeting in any place, any time:
Solemn, smiling, mildly puzzled, or with a beneficent swish of Glinda the Good, each Concerned Person put down his or her alphanumerics…: Shoshana Zucker, who used to be the director of Julie’s nursery school, a chemotherapy shmatte on her head; Claude Rapf the urban planner, who lived on a hill above the Caldecott Tunnel in a house shaped like a flying saucer…; a skinny, lank-haired Fu Manchued dude later revealed with a flourish to be Professor Presto Digitation, the magician…; two of the aging Juddhists who had recently opened a meditation center called Neshama…; that freaky Emmet Kelly—as Gloria Swanson—impersonator lady from the apartment over the Self-Laundry, holding her Skye terrier; Amre White, godson of Jim Jones, now the pastor of a rescue mission…; a city of Berkeley arborist…; that Stephen Hawking guy who was not Stephen Hawking; the lady who owned the new-wave knitting store…; a noted UC Berkeley scholar of Altaic languages…carrying on his right shoulder without acknowledgment and for unspoken reasons a ripe banana…; Sandy the dog trainer….
Will the neighborhood be saved? Not quite, and by the end that is not the main question. This is also, and perhaps primarily, a story of fathers and sons. Nat Jaffe’s son, Julius, known as Julie, is an irresistible character, “bopping all over town in his woeful Isro and his bell-bottom jeans, some kind of little Jewish soul elf.” An effeminate nerd wearing tie-dyed longjohns, skate-boarding through town with a vintage boom box hanging from his shoulder, he is in some ways the most vulnerable of the inhabitants of Telegraph Avenue, but there is also something harmonious about him: in a world of people who do not fit in, Julie is the one who does not fit in the most. When we first meet him, he is
rereading his memoir in progress, working-titled Confessions of a Secret Master of the Multiverse. He had begun to write it two months earlier in a six-inch Moleskin, in a fever of boredom, drug-sick on H.P. Lovecraft, intending to produce an epic monument to his loneliness and to the appalling tedium he induced in himself. That first night he had cranked out thirty-two unruled pages. Page one started thus: