“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon (Harper, 465 pages, $27.99)
Michael Chabon is a multitalented writer. Besides novels (this is his eighth), he has published two short story collections and two books of essays, not to mention screenplays. He bridges the divide many see between literary and popular fiction, delving into adventure, children’s literature and science fiction. His novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, follows two men who become major figures in the comics industry.
He brings this plethora of talent and interest to his new novel, which follows the plight of Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe and their families as they face the dissolution of their beloved store, Brokeland Records, a staple in the border between Berkeley and Oakland, Calif.
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These two are longtime friends and bandmates who know each other so well they seem like a married couple. Trouble arrives in the summer of 2004 when ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build a megastore nearby on Telegraph Avenue.
Their families have their own plights. Gwen Shanks (Archy’s wife) and Aviva Roth-Jaffe (Nat’s) are the Berkeley Birth Partners, midwives who have overseen a thousand births. Trouble arrives when a birth has problems, and they have the mother taken to the hospital, where a doctor dismisses midwifery as voodoo, which sets off Gwen and leads to a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Archy’s father, Luther, who abandoned him when Archy was a child, is hanging around. And Archy’s teenage son Titus Joyner shows up from Texas, where he had lived, unknown to Archy, all his life. And Julius, Nat’s 15-year-old son, is in love with Titus, who doesn’t return his devotion.
Chabon captures all these characters and more with a fecund language that brings them alive. His writing is lush throughout. Here’s one example, a description of Valletta Moore, a former star of Blaxploitation films from the 1970s: “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, as if she herself had come fresh from the spray gun of Sixto Cantor.”
He shows thoughts as well, as Archy considers his father’s failures: “Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.” Such wisdom from a character who also fails as a father.
Chabon fills his novel with references to music, movies, books, sports and comics, showing both his knowledge and his affection. He also writes knowledgably and respectfully about midwifery. He handles a complex plot with a multitude of characters, each lovingly described, each with his or her own voice. Senator Barack Obama even makes an appearance. And Chabon throws in a 12-page-long sentence for good measure, one more card up his sleeve.
Perhaps most remarkable is the ability of a white writer to portray black characters so well. (Though I’m judging this as a white reader.) Archy and Gwen are black; Nat and Aviva are Jewish. Some of this ability may stem from Chabon’s having grown up in an intentional, integrated community in Maryland, where his best friends and most of his classmates were black.
“Telegraph Avenue” is a rich work, by turns suspenseful, funny, heartbreaking and, ultimately, satisfying. Just when you think Chabon can’t possibly tie up all the loose ends of his plot, he does—with feeling and insight.
Gwen, who has left Archy for his unfaithfulness, comes to feel pity for him, “for his father and his sons, for all the men of whom he was the heir or the testator, from the Middle Passage, to the sleeper cars of the Union Pacific.”
Brokeland Records is more than a store; it’s a place where community happens. In the end, Archy decides that “it was all about the neighborhood, that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion as the talk grew ever more scholarly and wild.” “Telegraph Avenue” captures this place perfectly.