This record of sorrow is being penned in human blood on parchment made from the hides of drowned sailors. Its unhappy author—O pity me, friend, wherever you lie at your ease!—perches by the high window of a lightening-blasted tower, on a beetling skull-rock beside the roaring madness of a polar sea. Chained at the ankle to an iron bedstead, gnawing on the drumstick of a roasted rat….
What rescues Julie from his fourteen-year-old ennui is the arrival of Titus Joyner, a motherless fourteen-year-old African-American refugee from Tyler, Texas,
a mystery boy fallen from the sky like the Wold Newton meteorite, apparently inert and yet invisibly seething with the mutagenic information of distant galaxies and exploding stars.
Julie was in love.
Titus is living with an auntie in a kind of foster-child flophouse. He asks Julie if he can stay at the Jaffes’ instead:
“Just tell them I’m your imaginary friend,” Titus said. “A only child, come on, you got to have a imaginary friend.”
“I did when I was little.”
“Yeah? What was his name?”
“His name was Cherokee.”
“Cherokee. He still live here?”
Before he could quite dismiss the question as the joke it was intended to be, Julie had a quick look around the attic.
Julie understands his own residual racial embarrassment, a boyish scab of confusion, etiquette, and guilt—his cultural heritage:
Julie longed to put his arms around Titus, to console him, but he could not be sure that Titus would welcome such a touch. Indeed, he suspected Titus would reject it. Julie could only guess, the intuition guided if not shaped entirely by the dubious and histrionic hand of ghetto melodramas, cop shows, and the brutal lyrics of rap songs, at the latest trauma that Titus had undergone.
But Julie is comfortable and easy with that heritage, and he has the sophisticated understanding of his parents’ pieties that children so often do:
“I mean, even if my parents let you stay, and I don’t even want to think how I’m going to explain it all to them, I just have to, like, rely on the fact that they are going to get off on the idea that I have a troubled young African-American friend they can, like, help out or whatever….”
Julius Jaffe is a perfect incarnation of the imperfection of adolescence, the dreamy intelligence, the romantic cynicism, the puzzled sexual fever, the sweetness of discovery. The closeness of the distance between Julie and his father is like the space between shy partners dancing the box step:
With a solemn intake of breath, Julie activated his secret master training. He would use his Field of Silence, he thought, in combination with his Scowl of Resounding Finality…. His father seeing nothing, understanding nothing, searching for the line, the signal, the telling bit of repartee. Recently and unexpectedly, the fiber-optic cable between the continents of Father and Son had been severed by the barb of some mysterious dragging anchor. His father stood there in the attic doorway…loving Julie with a glancing half-sly caution that the boy could feel and yet be certain of the uselessness thereof….
The relationship between Julie and Titus is complicated by Julie’s sexual and romantic passion for the rather laconic and preoccupied Titus. It is also complicated by a secret Titus first reveals to Julie: he is Archy Stallings’s son.
Julie envisioned Titus pedaling past Archy and Gwen’s house at twilight, the sagging porch with its freight of bougainvillea, the life in which Titus was not permitted or could not bring himself to share passing back and forth like a movie to be memorized shot for shot across the screen of the big bay window.
Archy Stallings is a perfect storm of fatherhood tsuris. He is not ready to be a father, though he has a baby coming any day. He has never been ready to be a father, though he’s had a son for fourteen years whom he vaguely suspected might exist. His father figure, a musician named Cochise, dies, crushed beneath that diesel-heavy Hammond B-3 organ. And Luther Stallings, his own father, tall, handsome, chin-dimpled, blue-eyed kung fu master, star of blaxploitation movies of the Seventies, who walked out on Archy when he was a baby, is back in Oakland. Drugs and jail have taken their toll on Luther; the multiple desertions have taken their toll on Archy. And within the loops of a mild, farcical blackmail narrative, the legacy of Luther Stalling unspools: his son detests him, but his grandson, Titus, is a different story. Watching tapes of Luther’s movies, he is mesmerized:
Luther Stallings, the idea of Luther Stallings, felt to Titus like no one and no place had ever felt: a point of origin. A legendary birthplace, lost in the mists of Shaolin or the far-off technojungles of Wakanda. There in the dark beside Julie, watching his grandfather, Titus got a sense of his own life’s foundation in the time of myths and heroes. For the first time since coming to consciousness of himself, small and disregarded as a penny in the corner of the world’s bottom drawer, Titus Joyner saw in his own story a shine of value, and in himself the components of glamour.
The heroic beauty and mythical glamour of pop culture, and its redemptive value, are very real for Chabon. Even in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his first and thoroughly realistic novel, with its wobbly wood slums and confused young love, a chimney belched out pure white puffs turning the city into an enchanted cloud factory. Kavalier & Clay took place in a glowing Jewish New York City during World War II, the Empire State Building presiding iconically over the dreams of the two heroes and their magnificent comic book creations. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, too, with its tough, noir Yids, was a novel of genre exaltation.
In Telegraph Avenue, Gwen recalls Julie explaining two science-fiction visions: terraforming and pantropy, two ways to colonize a new planet. Terraforming is changing a planet’s atmosphere and environment to suit physical human needs. Pantropy uses the opposite approach: altering “the human form and mind to allow survival, even prosperity, on a harsh, unforgiving world.” This strikes Gwen as an apt metaphor for African-Americans attempting to survive in the hostile planet that the United States has been for so long:
In the struggle to thrive and flourish on the planet of America, some black people had opted for the epic tragedy, grand and bitter, of terraforming; others, like Gwen’s parents and their parents and grandparents before them, had engaged in a long and selective program of pantropy. Black pantropy had produced, in Gwen and her brothers, a clutch of viable and effortless success-breathers, able to soar and bank on thermals of opportunity and defy the killing gravity of the colony world.
If there is something a little unsettling in this easygoing description of so many centuries of pain, there is also something bracing in the reimagining of blacks colonizing the lesser beings of planet United States. Chabon turns the same unexpected sci-fi lens onto the experience of giving birth. Here is Gwen in labor:
Had to be a thousand degrees Kelvin in the LDR, Gwen feeling strangely but not pleasantly buoyant in the heat. Sweating, fouled, writhing. Hair like a gorgon’s. The bed a swamp. Her skin in full rebellion, as if the baby were something not only to be expelled from her womb but shed from the outside, too; the hospital gown intolerable, abrasive, a crust of toast against the roof of the mouth. Gwen felt desperate, wild to labor naked. Wanted to rip off the gown, burst from it like the Hulk trashing one of his professor-dude lab coats….
She was barely able to get the words out as another great slow umbrella of pain opened inside her…. Pain like a closing of the eyes….
Paddling to stay on top of the wave as it broke, trying to ride it. A big one, really big, the biggest one yet, high, wide, deep, and rolling on and on like an earthquake. Impervious as an earthquake to her will, which amounted in the end to nothing more than the words “please be over” repeated for what felt like hours.
This time there was no rest between measures, no patch of blue. The flow of pain within her simply shifted, shunted by some switch in the rail yard of her nervous system, from the bands of steel that belted her abdomen to someplace lower and farther inside.
The Hulk; shedding from the outside; the rail yard—not typical images used in descriptions of childbirth. These specimens rise up from the depths of an imagination used to welcoming not pregnant women and crowning babies but superheroes and bizarre alien villains. Chabon, like his characters, is a stranger in a strange land here. But it is exactly that, his robust stranger’s embrace of childbirth, an excruciating, exhilarating, out-of-body body experience that Chabon can never share, that makes this passage, and Chabon’s work in general, so powerful.
Women are no more alien than, well, aliens. Gwen is a physical being, weighted down by the gravity of earth, the gravity of reality, of the reality of another life she carries around with her. Her bulk, her discomfort, her angry exhaustion—throughout the novel Gwen and her swollen belly and broken heart are given the dignity of Chabon’s full literary, stylistic attention, described with the obsessive, almost mechanical precision and vocabulary he habitually and beautifully employs for everything from memorabilia to weather to anal sex. In Telegraph Avenue, women have the solidity and strength of objects. Not objects of desire. Not objects of love. Not objects of need. Just objects, to be examined and explored like all the other objects of Chabon’s fascination.
Even the portrayal of Luther’s girlfriend and former costar, Valletta Moore, has a kind of muscularity, density almost, that is unusual in the depiction of an erotically beautiful woman, especially an older one. When Valletta approaches Archy, it’s been thirty years since she’s seen him and thirty years since her reign as a Pam Grier sex symbol, Candygirl Clark. Archy’s bitterness is palpable, but so is she:
Big-boned, shapely, on the fatal side of fifty, high-waisted, high-breasted, face a feline triangle. Beer-bottle-brown eyes, skin luminous and butterscotch…. The architecture of her ass was something deeper than a memory to Archy, something almost beyond remembrance, an archetype, the pattern of all asses forever after, wired into the structure of reality itself…. The lady most definitely giving off that heavy 1978 Spencer’s smell of love candles and sandalwood incense but, laid over top of it, the stink of cigarette, the instant-potatoes smell you might find in the interior of a beat-to-shit Toronado.
Chabon is one of those writers who cherishes his characters. They are all his imaginary friends, still in the attic. And he is not afraid to venture into their alternative universes, even those as close as Telegraph Avenue. He views the battered world of the border between Oakland and Berkeley with the same loving, infatuated scrutiny that science fiction bestows on its vast galaxies, and the battered borderland is the better for it. Chabon delights in the way the world could be. He is filled with nostalgia for a way it never really was. In Telegraph Avenue, those impulses come together and somehow manage to illuminate the way the world really is in all its tender, flawed glory.