There’s an interesting backstory to Michael Chabon’s new book, Telegraph Avenue (Harper, $28). Chabon conceived the story as a television series, an hourlong dramedy about two connected families set against the social and cultural history of politically charged Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., the birthplace of the Black Panthers. TNT passed on the pilot, but Chabon—one of our most consistently brilliant contemporary writers—reworked the material into one of this year’s most entertaining and satisfying novels.
Telegraph Avenue revolves around Brokeland Records, a struggling indie specializing in rare vinyl. The store’s two owners—Archy Stallings, who is black, and Nat Jaffe, who is white—aren’t just best friends and business owners; they also play in a jazz combo. Nat’s wife, Aviva, is a midwife who runs a birthing practice with Archy’s wife, Gwen, who also happens to be very pregnant with Archy’s first child. That is, until Titus Joyner, 15, arrives from Texas. Titus quickly becomes attached to Nat and Aviva’s gay son, Julius (“Julie”), prior to being revealed as Archy’s illegitimate child. Of course, Titus’ presence isn’t nearly as upsetting to Gwen as the realization that Archy is having an affair.
Chabon doesn’t skimp on the supporting characters either: there’s Archy’s father, Luther, a martial arts champion and former Blaxploitation star; Luther’s girlfriend (and former co-star) Valletta Moore; Randall “Cochise” Jones, who plays organ in Archy and Nat’s band and has a parrot sidekick named “Fifty-Eight;” and Gibson Goode, an ex-NFL star turned businessman who wants to open a rival record store and put Brokeland out of business. The story is set in 2004, which allows for a cameo by a certain young senator from Illinois at one of the band’s gigs.
Chabon is a gifted writer who has little trouble juggling multiple characters and plot points and packing Telegraph Avenue with pop culture references, including Quentin Tarantino films, television’s Star Trek and Walker, Texas Ranger and frequent nods to jazz musicians. Special attention must be paid to Chabon’s dazzling sentences, which are at times so impressive that some readers will find them distracting. The third chapter in the book, “A Bird of Wide Experience,” is actually a single sentence that goes on for 12 pages. It’s gimmicky, yes, but Chabon makes it serve the story he’s telling.
Telegraph Avenue reads like a meal. It’s a thoughtful, mature work about racism, tolerance and dreams. There are quantum entanglements at the root of this novel and long-simmering consequences of decades-old deeds. Mostly, it made me think about the expectations and responsibilities that parenting brings. ★★★★★