Top of the Pops

Novelist Michael Chabon is a devoted trafficker in pop-culture artifacts. From his earliest fiction, he has wielded his fluency in the ephemera of (mostly) American entertainments to animate the small universes his characters inhabit. In the same way John Updike once used A&Ps, kitchen gadgets, and Toyota dealerships to demarcate his swath of latter-twentieth-century America, Chabon employs the found objects of late-night infomercials, Hollywood marginalia, comic books, and pulp-fiction paperbacks to stake out his territory. In his newest work, Telegraph Avenue, vintage vinyl recordings, jazz and blues music, and 1970s film and TV serve this function—only to a far greater degree and with much greater purpose than before. More than mere markers, these blessed relics of an increasingly distant past hold the weight of unimpeachable truth for characters confused by the present.

Telegraph Avenue tells the story of two closely linked families living in the Oakland-Berkeley borderland of 2004, where commercialization and gentrification are combining not only to threaten the modest livelihoods of the principals, but also to stoke self-doubt and regret over the choices they’ve made. The “moonfaced and mountainous” Archy Stallings is an African-American Gulf War veteran and half-owner of Brokeland Records, a reseller of rare albums threatened by the impending arrival of a music megastore. His partner in this rickety enterprise is Nat Jaffe, a Jew genetically predisposed to Eeyore-like gloom. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are also partners in business—a midwifing service catering to the increasingly well-heeled couples colonizing the surrounding hills.

That’s the basic framework, but a lot of other things are going on. Archy’s estranged father, the all-but-forgotten star of a ’70s black martial-arts movie franchise called Strutter, is back in town and begging for money, while the now-teenaged son Archy long suspected he had fathered has shown up in the flesh and quickly become the romantic obsession of Nat’s own adolescent boy. Gwen, committed to the mission of what she calls “catching babies,” is herself thirty-six weeks pregnant. Add still more complications—the lingering repercussions of a decades-old Black Panthers murder, a potentially devastating malpractice suit lodged against Gwen and Aviva, a glossy black dirigible, a talking parrot, and an outsized electric organ—and you have a fairly sprawling novel.

And it all works. Chabon excels in the creation of strange but believable universes that run according to a well-established inner logic—densely-detailed fictional worlds whose inhabitants encounter obstacles unique to their circumstances yet not beyond the apprehension of readers. Working almost like a science-fiction writer, only with far more humor, Chabon conjures worlds that are one fascinating half-turn off from ours. He deployed this approach most notably in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, with its fictional Alaskan homeland for displaced Jews, and in the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, with its fraternal community of 1930s New York comic-book writers. The latter novel detailed the creation of a superhero whose moniker—“The Escapist”—not only evokes the writer’s impulse to dream another place into being, but also acknowledges his responsibility to lead the reader to it. That the Escapist’s emblem is not a stylized uppercase letter but a golden key is illustrative: Chabon springs his readers out of the mundane and into the fantastical, while maintaining a firm guiding hand.

These books differed from predecessors like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, breezy first-person narratives with realistic contemporary settings. Telegraph Avenue sits closer to the earlier work in this way, with the action unfolding in a familiar world of coffee shops and comfortably shabby homes, black funeral parlors and busy hospitals, lawyers’ offices and Chinese restaurants. But the scope is much larger, addressing issues of family and work, fathers and sons, motherhood and birth, race and class, and filtering it all through multiple points of view.

Moreover, the current novel and its setting are saturated by the past—an “other” world that many of the characters, it seems, would rather inhabit. Or maybe it inhabits them. Chabon’s characters regularly reference jazz and soul musicians like Miles Davis and James Brown, television shows like Mork and Mindy and The Six Million Dollar Man, martial arts stars like Bruce Lee, plus the films of Stanley Kubrick, the songs of Stevie Wonder, the spirituals of Mahalia Jackson, and much much more. There will probably come a time when an annotated edition of Telegraph Avenue is released. Some readers might feel the need for one now.

Still, none of this is mere nostalgia; none of it is gratuitous. Chabon fills his fictional space with these touch points in order to animate the people who call it home, even as they confront common annoyances like the assembly of an Ikea bed, life-changers like the arrival of a baby, or threats like the collapse of a business. In Chabon’s hands this burden of pop-culture reference serves not merely as his characters’ idiom, but also as the tradition they’re charged with preserving. In this way, Archy, Nat, and the rest are like the displaced Jews of the Sitka District in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—only with rhythm-and-blues artists as forebears and rare recordings as talismans.

It helps that throughout Telegraph Avenue Chabon exerts a deft compositional hand, all the way down to the sentence level. A home-birthing client lives in “one of those California canyon houses put up in the late sixties with a Jet Propulsion Laboratory arrogance toward gravity, a set of angles on skinny poles engineered out into the green void.” Gwen wryly distills the secret of raising kids: “You have to make them do things they don’t want to do, even when you don’t really care if they do them or not.” There’s also a chapter-length interlude, titled “A Bird of Wide Experience,” that unfurls like an improvised solo, a single sentence running eleven pages and tracking the flight of the escaped talking parrot as it takes in all that’s happening below and then finally comes to rest “in a fine establishment of loquat trees frequented heavily by the legendary flock of North Berkeley parrots, the Leaf Men of that neighborhood, far from the heartaches and sorrows of Telegraph Avenue.”

In a story this closely set to music, it’s maybe not surprising that Chabon sneaks in the old joke about performing an unfamiliar piece live, via an exchange between dyspeptic Nat and long-suffering Aviva. “You know it’s all going to work out in the end?” she asks, trying to boost her husband’s spirits. “No,” he answers. “But I guess I can probably fake it.”

Whether it all does work out in the end depends on which character you ask. But faking it has never been a part of Chabon’s repertoire. This big novel, intricately scored and deeply layered, could have collapsed in lesser hands into mere noise. Instead, it swings along with the seeming effortlessness that only someone in complete control can pull off. And like a good groove, it doesn’t let go.

Published in the 2012-12-21 issue: 
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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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