Review: Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue,” a welcome, exuberant voice in our fractious times

Michael Chabon is “one of the most celebrated writers of his generation” according to “The Virginia Quarterly Review.” The 49-year-old author is best known for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. His new novel “Telegraph Avenue,” is set in 2004 Oakland, Calif., along a fertile crossroads in the churn of American life. Ned Jaffe and Archy Stallings are partners in Brokeland Records, a vintage music store threatened by a new development, a multimedia complex replete with a gaming arcade, food court, 10 movie screens and a media store. Gibson Goode, ex-quarterback and the fifth-richest black man in America, is bankrolling it.

Ned’s wife, Aviva, and Archy’s very pregnant wife, Gwen, are partners in a midwife practice, threatened by a hostile doctor. Meanwhile, Ned and Aviva’s son, Julius, and Archy’s previously unknown son, Titus, are partners in the search for Archy’s renegade father, Luther, a 1970s Blaxploitation movie star down on his luck.

Chabon, who won a 2000 Pulitzer Prize for his inventive, jazzy novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier andClay,” surrounds his new protagonists with another plenteous cast of secondary characters — frequenters of Brokeland Records, forgotten musicians, Oakland councilmen, birthing parents and most memorably, Valletta Moore, a woman “on the fatal side of fifty” who can still pack a wallop.

Many of these voices are black, and Chabon seems second only to Richard Price among white novelists who have a convincing ear for urban vernacular. The audiobook version — outstanding in its own right — is read by actor Clarke Peters, best known for “The Wire” and “Damages.”

Vintage blues and R&B pound forth like a soundtrack on these pages. The cover displays a record jacket listing five cuts, which correspond to the novel’s five chapters. As the perspective moves from one character to another, assembling a composite of a unique and thoroughly contemporary scene, its structures are musical as much as novelistic. Chabon, among the most inventive and graceful of storytellers, here takes up the themes and motifs of melody, translating them into prose.

Midway through the book, in a 12-page set piece straight out of Victorian fiction, an orphaned parrot takes flight over Oakland, passing over each set of main characters before finding a home in a foreclosed backyard “where other birds had long ago raided a loquat tree and then dropped or shat out the pits, reared by time and neglect to a fine establishment of loquat trees frequented heavily by the legendary flock of North Berkeley parrots, the Leaf Men of that neighborhood, far from the heartaches and sorrows of Telegraph Avenue.”

This is a novel rich in story and character, rich in its dialogue and descriptions, rich in spirit and invention — and full of sharp, funny writing. Gwen, for instance, spots Archy seated with an Ethiopian restaurant owner, a woman “coiled on her side of the table like a soft and sinister intention . . . Her hair was a glory of tendrils for the snaring of husbands.”

This novel is expansive enough to include a 90-year-old Chinese kung-fu master named Irene Jew, and a guest appearance by Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama, who dispenses some marital advice to Gwen.

The spirit of “Telegraph Avenue” is one of union and reconciliation, a welcome, exuberant voice in our fractious times.

Avenue” is Chabon’s first major work in five years, and considered one of his best works since “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” won the Pulitzer in 2001. And while it’s a journey through a few weeks in his characters’ lives — a couple of longtime pals, one black and one Jewish, whose Brokeland shop faces impending doom as a mega store moves in down the street — the book is also heavily settled on a sense of situation, of place, of neighborhood. Locals hang out at Brokeland, talk over life’s troubles, all while Chabon stirs up the flavor of the multiethnic communities along the Telegraph corridor, name-dropping local favorites with an affectionate nostalgia, places like Moe’s Books and Neldam’s Danish Bakery and the decadent deliciousness of its signature Dream of Cream cake.

“This book took me a very long time to write,” said Chabon, 49, sporting his trademark scruffy beard and glasses as rapt Chabonians squeezed in five-deep rows to hear him. “It was 1999 when I walked into Berigan’s and the initial seeds were planted. I actually came up with the idea for a TV show and developed it and wrote a script for the pilot, but it didn’t go anywhere and I laid it aside. So I really feel like this is a culmination for me.”

Chabon said he chose Telegraph and the surrounding area because, well, it’s where he lives.

“I kept living here, having experiences, talking to people,” he said of the area he describes in the book as “the ragged fault line where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subdivided.”

“It had been such a long time since I’d written in the near present and more or less in consensus reality,” he said. “So instead of researching how people communicated to a friend in Alaska — did they send letters on sled dogs? Were there special postmarks involved? — it was relief to know how things are done and to write about the familiar.”

The familiar was definitely the draw for reader Peter Michaels of Oakland, who has a personal connection to the Telegraph area and wanted to see if Chabon got it right. “I was intimately involved in a record store — Leopold’s Records, which was a nonprofit up by the Cal campus, long before Michael Chabon was born,” Michaels said, eagerly flipping through his copy of the book to find the reference. “So I’m curious to see how faithful he was to that spot.”

Berigan Taylor was delighted to discover Chabon’s authentic prose when it came to his old record store — the shop on Claremont Avenue that planted the seed for Chabon.

“He popped in way back in the ’90s and apparently hung out for a while,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know it or even know who he was. He didn’t introduce himself. But he clearly absorbed the feel of it as being a local hangout, heard some conversations, people talking about everything under the sun. He totally got it.”

Chabon himself has a huge collection of vinyl records, mostly jazz, and plays them while he writes. “The first record I ever bought — a 45, because they were cheaper — was the Grand Funk Railroad cover of ‘The Loco-Motion,'” he said. “And the first LP I bought with my own money was Queen’s ‘Night at the Opera,’ which I still have.”

Someone dared ask about his trademark use of complex, circuitous sentences in his novels, often taking the readers on detours to the dictionary. He offered a jovial response: “I love it when I’m reading and I encounter a word I don’t know and I have to go look it up,” he said. “That’s some of the pleasure of reading for me, and I want to share that part of the experience.”

The pop-up Brokeland store will only be up through Friday. Diesel books is at 5433 College Ave., Oakland. “Telegraph Avenue” is already on its way to becoming a movie, to be produced by Scott Rudin, who turned Chabon’s second novel, “Wonder Boys,” into the 2000 film of the same name.

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