Thursday, April 19, 2018
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Review: With music as backdrop, bouncy writing holds but Michael Chabon's 'Telegraph Avenue' together

Michael Chabon creates whole worlds in his novels, from the resonant evocation of mid 20th century America in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to the cool (in more ways than one) braiding of hard-boiled detective novel and alternate-history fantasy in The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

He's done it again in Telegraph Avenue, his big-hearted, sprawling but intimate tale about two families. His most realistic novel in a while — no overt strains of the science fiction, fantasy, mystery or other genres he loves so well — Telegraph Avenue is set during the 2004 presidential campaign and riffs on class, race, marriage, generational conflict, music, movies, food, economics, politics and, perhaps most of all, fatherhood. It does all that through a large cast of beautifully realized characters and a plot as fluid and intricate as a jazz masterpiece.

At the book's center are two men, longtime friends, bandmates and business partners Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings. At first glance they're a study in comic contrasts: Nat is a skinny white Jew who hums constantly out of a surfeit of energy and low-level anger, Archy a mountain of a black man with a sweetly laid-back attitude (a little too sweet sometimes with the ladies).

But Chabon takes us way past those seeming sitcom stereotypes into Nat's and Archy's inner lives and pasts. In the present, they're the proprietors of Brokeland Records in California, a used vinyl shop tagged by the rueful nickname for its "neighborhood, the ragged fault line where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted."

A used record store is not exactly a surefire business plan in any case, and Brokeland is hobbled by its owners' discriminating tastes: They are stone jazz and soul aficionados, and the vinyl they glean from estate sales and Dumpster dives reflects that. It's a noble devotion, but one only a distressingly small number of customers share.

They've managed to get by, but now disaster looms. Gibson "G Bad" Goode, former pro quarterback turned media mogul and "the fifth richest black man in America," plans to build something called a Dogpile Thang — multiplex, food court, arcade, retail and three-story media (including used records) store — just a few blocks down Telegraph Avenue from Brokeland Records. When a powerful councilman and undertaker named Chan Flowers brings them the news, they react true to type: Nat prepares to fight while Archy edges into denial.

Archy's and Nat's wives are in business together too, as the Berkeley Birth Partners — Aviva Roth-Jaffe, "the Alice Waters of midwives," and Gwen Shanks, who is herself just a couple of uncomfortable weeks away from giving birth to her first child.

Their spotless record for midwiving successful births for their exacting, mostly well-off clients takes a hit early in the book when a patient delivers a healthy baby at home, but begins to hemorrhage and must be taken to the hospital. She's fine, but the snotty doctor who treats her lashes the midwives with sarcasm. When Gwen begins to lose her usually seamless cool, he piles on a couple of racist cracks that send her over the edge. So, while Brokeland faces a big-box attack, the Birth Partners are dealing with possibly losing their hospital privileges — and being sued by the mother's litigious boyfriend.

And that's not all. Nat and Aviva's son, Julius, a pop culture-obsessed 14-year-old who's already out of the closet as gay — news his parents met with aplomb — is madly in love with a boy he met in a film class. Titus Joyner grew up in Texas but, with his mother and grandmother dead, has moved in with a "crazy old auntie" in Oakland. Oh, and it just so happens he's Archy's son, born of a long-ago romance.

Archy knew about the boy but never made an effort to have a relationship with him — to his suppressed but aching shame, since the great formative event of his life was his abandonment by his father, 1970s blaxploitation film star and martial artist Luther Stallings (who just happens to be back in town too, and has a mysterious link with G Bad).

Archy has never mentioned Titus to Gwen, and given that the same day as the hospital skirmish she caught him with another woman, she might not accept the news of a teenage stepson calmly.

That all happens in the first 100 pages or so. And then things get complicated.

The two central families are surrounded by expanding rings of brightly drawn characters with whom Chabon gives us a dynamic portrait of a diverse community, with all its quirks and grudges. Many of those characters share Chabon's own passions for music — jazz, soul, pop — movies and other manifestations of pop culture. Here those passions take a distinctive shape: From blaxploitation movies to bebop, from muscle cars to tie-dye long johns, they embody a longing for the past, nostalgia as an armor against loss. That is particularly true of Chabon's male characters; the women are the realists here, while their husbands and sons grapple from opposite sides with just what fatherhood means.

Much of the pleasure of Telegraph Avenue comes from Chabon's witty and exuberant writing. A friend of Archy's "broke off a piece of a smile and tucked it into his left cheek as if reserving it for future use." After Archy and Gwen argue, she "(s)poke for the first time in approximately eighteen minutes, or at any rate laid down an utterance, troubling to pack it beforehand, like a jihadi packing an IED, with shards of irony, nails of bitterness, jagged chips of bleak wonder." Nat, irritated with Julius, thinks of his son "bopping all over town with his woeful Isro and his bell-bottom jeans, some kind of little Jewish soul elf." And wait until you get to that virtuoso 12-page, single-sentence chapter.

This is a novel that stands splendidly on its own, but when it's published on Sept. 11, Harper will also release an enhanced ebook version that includes an interactive map, audio and video, a playlist, and original music and illustrations. Many of the enhanced ebooks I've seen have been mere gimmicks, but in the case of Telegraph Avenue, already rich with its author's knowledge of and love for other arts, it just might work.

And if not, you can turn off the flourishes and stick with the novel, which is a joy.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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