In this funny but moving tale, a black-music record company struggles with the corporate juggernaut along the famous Berkeley-to-Oakland thoroughfare.
Reviewed by Steven J. Wangsness
Michael Chabon’s new novel takes its name from the iconic thoroughfare immediately south of the UC-Berkeley campus. For people of a certain age who know it, Telegraph Avenue probably brings to mind the turmoil that enveloped it during the free-speech and anti-war struggles of the 1960s and ’70s. The last time I was there, in the winter of 1974, I stood for awhile outside Cody’s Books, a Telegraph landmark, waiting for my roommate to return so we could catch the shuttle back to Santa Cruz. Someone tried to sell me acid.
After four blocks, Telegraph takes a southwestern turn; most of it runs through Oakland. Before it reaches downtown, it passes through neighborhoods that are poorer, blacker, grittier and funkier than those in its northern reaches. Part of the area was once Black Panther territory.
Somewhere in an indeterminate zone between the two ends and two worlds of Telegraph — white and black, rich and poor — Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe preside over Brokeland Records, a low-rent repository of vinyl records. It’s an enterprise that teeters perpetually on the brink of insolvency, providing the partners — Archy black and Nat white but with an authentically black soul — few rewards beyond the satisfaction of preserving the soul-jazz-fusion-funk of a lost, “pre-apocalyptic” era of black music, and a venue in which to savor and discuss it, languorously, with their diverse clientele.
But just as Cody’s Books has closed its doors, killed off by competition from chain bookstores, so corporatization threatens Brokeland in the form of Gibson Goode, a former pro quarterback, who plans to turn the nearby site of an old laundromat on Telegraph Avenue into one of his Dogpile Records megamarts. Doom hangs over Archy and Nat’s little store like the Dogpile zeppelin cruising over the East Bay.
As Nat sets about ginning up opposition to Dogpile, Archy goes about messing up his marriage to Gwen, who with Nat’s wife, Aviva, is teamed in a very-Berkeleyesque midwifery partnership. They, too, run up against the corporate Man in the form of the medical establishment, which dismisses their work as so much New Age voodoo.
As he did with the advent of the modern comic book industry in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon deeply works the mine of popular culture in Telegraph Avenue, here looking back on a time before corporatized record companies, MTV, crack cocaine and other ills left only “broken pieces” of what had been black musical genius. It will also help if the reader has at least a passing familiarity with “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”
Race and ethnicity puddle up in surprising ways. Nat, having grown up with a black stepmother in the mostly black section of an Oakland suburb, feels as much at home in the “creole” mix of Brokeland as he does playing the funky music, and he frets when his call to arms to fight Dogpile elicits the support mostly of an assortment of “freaky Caucasians.” Meanwhile, Nat’s gay teenage son, Julius — better known as Julie — wants “to die of his own whiteness, to be drowned in the tide of his embarrassment of all uncool white people everywhere.” Gwen puts the midwifery partnership in jeopardy by reacting angrily to a racially tinged jab from a boorish doctor but doubts her own merit because she tends to so few black women in her practice.
The perils of fatherhood and the yoke of abandonment, familiar themes for Chabon, are evident here in the person of Archy. Already feeling beset by Gwen’s pregnancy, nearing its gravid, moody end, he is “tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people” and especially tired of being “the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat” by Dogpile. He resents his father Luther — who starred in a series of blaxploitation movies before success and a crack-pipe went to his head — for abandoning him, but did the same to his own son, Titus. Now Luther is back in town, scheming to make a comeback, and just for good measure, Titus shows up, too. The arrival of these two, one harboring a dark secret, one himself a dark secret, sends Archy’s already messy life further out of control.
Those familiar with his earlier works like Kavalier and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will recognize Chabon’s singularly gifted imagination in these pages, populated with a small town’s worth of vivid characters, ranging from a kung fu master named Irene Jew to a Jewish lawyer-for-the-whales named Moby. Chabon’s mastery of language, elegant and luminous but never pompous or ponderous, the kind of writing that makes a mere scribbler like me feel completely inadequate, is in full flower. And, in something of a delightful surprise, Telegraph Avenue is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny.
I wish I could say I loved Telegraph Avenue from beginning to end, but as with Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda,” the middle part has me confused. For some reason that escapes me, the author decided to write the third of the novel’s five sections as one long, 12-page sentence, broken only by a single, seemingly randomly placed semicolon. There’s a parrot involved, so perhaps it’s Chabon’s way of recreating the avian mind. Whatever, I found it annoying.
Aside from that, Telegraph Avenue is a romp, an astounding, radiant, triumphant novel.
Steven J. Wangsness is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and author of the mystery novel Tainted Souls.