“Telegraph Avenue.” Even the title hearkens back to the past and speaks of obsolete technology; and Michael Chabon carries those themes throughout his new book, his first in five years. For fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the beautifully written, nostalgia-inducing novel was worth the wait.
A master of exploring and revealing subcultures of American society to his readers, in “Telegraph Avenue” (HarperCollins) Chabon has amassed a cast of characters — primarily African-American and Jewish — who seem to be stuck in the 1970s, defiantly refusing to make the leap from analog to the digital age; preferring instead to romanticize a past filled with vinyl records, eight-track players, bubble gum cards and blaxploitation films. In “Telegraph Avenue” people still drive El Caminos, listen to “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas and use printed paper fliers rather than electronic Facebook invites to promote events.
Set in Oakland in 2004, the book opens with two teenage boys — one black, the other white — chained together hand-to-shoulder as they roll along the streets of Berkeley conveyed by a bike and a skateboard. For at least one of the boys, the aimless summer pastime is a romantic interlude allowing him to indulge an infatuation that is getting perilously close to first love.
As in most of his books, Chabon includes a gay character (and a transgender one), a literary choice that early in his career caused Newsweek magazine to include him in an an article about promising new gay writers. Chabon is admittedly heterosexual with a wife (fellow author Ayelet Waldman) and children. That makes the insight he brings to his gay characters all the more remarkable. Julius Jaffe, or Julie, as he is known to his loved ones, is a secondary but pivotal character in “Telegraph Avenue.” He symbolizes hope, loyalty, innocence and, perhaps, a future that will be more well-adjusted and stable than his parents’ current adult lives.
The protagonists in “Telegraph Avenue” are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe (Julie’s father), also biracial best friends as well as longtime business partners in a vintage record store called Brokeland Records. Surviving more on passion than profit, the curators of rare jazz, funk and blues recordings suddenly take on the role of Ahabs against a corporate white whale. Gibson Goode, an NFL star-cum-business magnate, plans to open a megastore for music in the same neighborhood, a development that will certainly turn Brokeland’s name into a quite literal moniker.
Meanwhile, the partners’ wives, Gwen and Aviva, with a personal-business relationship that parallels that of their spouses, are striving to keep their own rooted-in-the-past business as midwives afloat after a confrontation with a doctor threatens to end their privileges to practice at a local hospital. Between these two plot lines, Chabon riffs on modern-day definitions of and adherence to community, family, father-son relationships, racism, celebrity and commerce.
The author injects conflict in lethal doses, none more volatile than the complications created when Archy’s previously unacknowledged 14-year-old son appears in town unexpectedly, driving a wedge between Archy and his pregnant wife and forcing the again-expecting father to reexamine his estranged ties to his own deadbeat dad, a washed-up actor who starred in a few martial arts movies in the ’70s.
Chabon evokes the Me Decade on nearly every page, not only by displaying an
encyclopedic knowledge of obscure recordings and B-movies, but by referencing pop culture of the period in his descriptions, dialogue and lyrical prose. A generation of readers will have their memories vigorously jogged by a barrage of one-time household names — Roxie Roker, Minnie Riperton, Bruce Lee, Jim Jones, Leon Spinks, Wilson Pickett, Alf — that make Telegraph Avenue such an entertaining read.
A pre-presidential, pre-Al-Green-crooning Barack Obama even makes a cameo appearance in the book as a music lover who shows appreciation for Stevie Wonder’s 1973 funk hit “Higher Ground” and Bad Medicine’s “Trespasser” being played by Archy and Nat’s band at a fund raiser. With an offhand remark, Obama becomes a catalyst for change in one of the characters, who experiences an epiphany because of the campaigner’s casual comment.
The pleasure of reading a Michael Chabon book — and “Telegraph Avenue” is no exception — is the author’s selection and play of words as if they were notes being used to compose a musical score. His descriptions of quotidian objects, like Gwen’s hands — “freaky-big, fluid as a couple of tide-pool dwellers, cabled like the Golden Gate Bridge” — conjure vivid and indelible imagery. Others, like Archy’s recollections of a childhood treat from a neighborhood bakery, sound almost elegiac:
“When he was a boy, a Dream of Cream from Neldam’s–crumbly chocolate cake interglaciating floes and tundras of whipped cream, the outside armored in a jagged tectonics of wide chocolate shavings–was a prodigy, a work of wonder, five dollars no one could spare spent annually by stingy but cake-loving ladies to celebrate the coming into the world of a fatherless and motherless fatboy.”
As a child of the ’70s, Chabon also pays tribute to great but largely forgotten musicians of the time, who, like the circuit board-free tools they used to create their art, slipped into obsolescence. By reminding us of their talent and contribution to our history and culture, Chabon leaves his readers longing for yesterday with a book that couldn’t be a better testament to the current age of Obama.