TELEGRAPH AVENUE. By Michael Chabon. HarperCollins. 468 pages. $30.
Almost 50, Michael Chabon is no longer a wonder boy of contemporary American literature but rather one of its most distinguished middle-age mavens. In his latest novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” Chabon exercises his will to literary bigness by attempting to map the borderlands between Berkeley and Oakland, white and black America, fathers and mothers through the late-capitalist drama of a neighborhood record shop facing extinction.
With riffs on everything from Pullman conductors to the Black Panthers, from Quentin Tarantino to the relationship between Bruce Lee and Superman, “Telegraph Avenue” misses a few beats along the way but nonetheless continues Chabon’s impressive string of hits.
Vinyl is to “Telegraph Avenue” what comic books are to Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”: an obsession of characters and author alike, an underestimated creative well, and a competitive business with winners and losers.
Brokeland Records, formerly Spencer’s Barbershop, is owned by Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings. Nat, “an existential drama queen,” has moved up just a notch from his modest roots as the son of a white Jewish newsstand owner and the stepson of a black woman. Archy dreams of his dead mother and rues the ongoing trouble caused by his wayward father, former drug addict and blaxploitation star Luther Stallings. The plans of black entrepreneur and former football legend Gibson Goode (aka G Bad) to open a multilevel Dogpile media store nearby threatens to become a death sentence for Brokeland as well as Archy’s and Nat’s interracial partnership.
As the plot thickens (and those readers who have previously spent time in Chabonland know that it can get very thick indeed), the definition of community, its uplift and Black Panther turf wars from the ’70s all become players in this music business. The next generation of this partnership — Julie, Nat’s gay son, and Titus, Archy’s not quite straight progeny — gets into the act as well.
Archy and Nat are joined not only by vinyl and their sons but also by their wives, Gwen and Aviva, who share a midwifery practice. Paralleling the Brokeland blues is the drama of midwifery simultaneously at odds with an elitist medical establishment and increasingly the birth plan of choice for new age well-heeled white women.
Once an afterbirth scene is moved to a hospital, Gwen is verbally assaulted by a racist doctor who likens midwifery to voodoo. As a proud black woman whose dignity already has been compromised by her own advanced pregnancy, by her husband’s infidelity and by her partner’s acquiescence to groveling as the price for hospital privileges, Gwen loses her carefully cultivated cool. The potential for professional ruin is averted, but her own frustrated birth plan reprises the threat posed by medical masters.
“Telegraph Avenue” strives to give the maternal its due, but as is so often the case in Chabon’s oeuvre, the paternal plot takes precedence. If there is a center that holds in this loose, baggy postmodern monster, it is the eulogy that Archy delivers for Cochise Jones, the man whom he proclaims “was like a father to me, which I seriously needed.” As Archy tells its, Jones the musician refused to participate in the “genre arguments” that too often dominated the counter talk at Brokeland, preferring instead to promote “Brokeland Creole.” Riffing on this father, Archy explains: “Creole, that’s, to me, it sums it up. That means you stop drawing those lines. It means Africa and Europe cooked up in the same skillet. Chopin, hymns, Irish music, polyrhythms, talking drums. And people.”
As Archy plays it, “forging that Creole style” and creating an oasis, a “caravansary” along the Silk Road where tribalism ebbs as diverse people “get together and chill, hang out, listen to good music, swap wild tales of exaggeration” was the dream that he and Nat shared.
Not coincidentally, that is also a version of the American dream that was forged for Chabon in the utopian, interracial community of Columbia, Md., where he first learned to map imaginary worlds. Columbia, like Brokeland, could not sustain its own ideals, but it set the stage for Chabon’s literary caravansary and his genre improvisations. “Telegraph Avenue” is the latest stop along his aesthetic Silk Road.
Reviewer Helene Meyers is the author of “Reading Michael Chabon” and “Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness.” She holds the McManis University Chair at Southwestern University.