by Michael Chabon; Harper, 2012; 468 pages; $27.99.
Michael Chabon is one of our national literary treasures, unaffectedly chronicling our country’s recent history with breathtaking and often surprising assurance. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” his Pulitzer-Prize-winning masterwork, examines our immigrant culture at mid-20th century through the worlds of New York and comic books. “Telegraph Avenue” looks at our blended cultures in California, our country’s western frontier, at the beginning of the new century and through the vinyl world of jazz and soul.
Both books are about change and how we hang in.
It is the summer of 2004, and Nat Jaffe (Jewish and uptight) and Archy Stallings (black and gentle) are doing just that most days at Brokeland Records, their shop of used vinyl records and used-up dreams. Aviva Roth-Jaffe, Nat’s wife, and Gwen Shanks, Archy’s, are the financial support of their husbands’ “hanging in.” Gwen and Aviva are midwives who own Berkeley Birth Partners, their personal dream as much as Brokeland Records is their husbands’.
Brokeland is in deep trouble, and so is Berkeley Birth. Gibson Goode, fifth richest black man in America, is making plans to open another Dogpile Thang, his version of Best Buy, near Brokeland Records there on Telegraph Avenue. Will another Dogpile destroy Brokeland? Or be good for Telegraph Avenue? Oakland? America? Will the midwives survive that lawsuit facing them?
As if those major worries aren’t enough, teenager Titus Joyner surfaces from Texas, remarkably resembling Archy and turning the head of Nat’s adolescent son Julie. Luther Stallings, Archy’s father and former star of 1970s blaxploitation films, anxiously hits up his son for a renewed relationship. Chan Flowers, undertaker to Telegraph Avenue and himself a local councilman, supports Gibson Goode’s plans. Cochise Jones, pet parrot on his shoulder, always seems to find one more obscure record to take home from Brokeland.
Then there’s that secret from the social fabric of the 1970s that still haunts Luther.
Michael Chabon knows how to tell good stories; in fact, he relishes telling them, straightforwardly at that. Such clarity never weakens his occasional literary experiments. At “Telegraph Avenue’s” center is an 11-page sentence, a sort of parrot’s-eye-view (yep, Cochise Jones’ parrot) of the novel’s characters halfway through their adventures. Similar to a film’s tracking shot, Chabon’s verbal tracking shot is never once pretentious, but works intricately from within the novel’s plot.
“Telegraph Avenue” never quite soars (despite the assistance of Mr. Jones’ parrot) in the way “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” does. Maybe that’s because America no longer has the hope that comes with a frontier. Maybe America is, like the book’s record store, a “broke” land with used-up dreams. Archy may think of himself as “the last coconut 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.” But an author’s inherent humanity can go a long way to temper that reality. It’s good to have Michael Chabon to lean on, to help us hang in.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.