“Telegraph Avenue” has what George W. Bush ’68 would’ve called a cast that “looked like America.” Not that he would read a book this progressive. Or one this long. Black, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, young, old, thin, fat, really fat, gay, straight and sexually ambiguous characters all play major roles. It is as if author Michael Chabon tried to capture the entire essence of Berkeley and Oakland in a single book.
Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written works across a number of genres and forms, including novels, children’s books, comic books and screenplays. This, his most recent novel, began in 1999 as the idea for a TV series about a real street that runs through both Berkeley and Oakland. More than a decade later, he came up with a book that is both beautifully written and comically captivating.
“Telegraph Avenue” focuses on two men, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe. Archy is black, Nat is white (and Jewish), but, other than that, the two are remarkably similar. Both are overweight, immature and enamored with old vinyl records, old music and the old neighborhood. Together, the two run Brokeland Records, named for the “no man’s land” of a district that separates Oakland and Berkeley.
Brokeland Records is threatened, much like real-life Brokeland, or even real-life Berkeley, by the impending arrival of big chain stores. In this case, that means a delightfully named “Dogpile Thang” (a sort of mall with a whole floor selling vintage vinyl) owned by Gibson “Gbad” Goode, who was once a Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and is now, as everyone seems to know, the fifth-richest black man in the country. The Thang will surely put Brokeland out of business, but Archy and Nat have an inkling that Goode won the rights to build it using unsavory means. Can he be stopped? Will their already struggling business survive?
There is trouble on the home front as well. Nat and Archy’s wives, Aviva and Gwen, work together as midwives in a thoroughly non-New-Agey practice. When a home birth goes wrong, and a very pregnant Gwen has a run-in with a very obnoxious (and quite racist) doctor, their practice is put at risk. Archy, scared of being a father, gets caught cheating on Gwen early in the novel; his illegitimate son later shows up, further estranging him from his wife. Can their marriage survive? Should it?
Also, throw in a 100-year-old Chinese woman who kicks ass at kung fu, an annoying talking parrot, a mobster-ish funeral home operator, Quentin Tarantino, old music, old cars, comic books, sexual politics and the Black Panthers, and you might grasp one fraction of the scope of this momentous novel. Even then-state Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows up in one memorable scene, making some weird conversation about jazz music and pregnancy.
If the language weren’t so beautifully crafted, the book would read like a comic farce. Archy’s estranged former-kung-fu-movie-star, former-Black-Panther father is trying to blackmail a city councilman, who was bribed by Goode, who is trying to strong-arm Archy, who considers abandoning Nat for financial security. Nat’s son Julie is sleeping with Archy’s long-lost son, Titus, who most characters don’t even know exists and no one knows is back in town. The relationships are as complex and confusing as the racial and cultural makeup of Berkeley and Oakland, but maybe that’s the point.
The writing is funny. It’s warm. It’s endearing. But, most of all, it’s just good. One man had a bald head “shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” The music of John Coltrane was “secretly powered by currents of rage … the saxophone bashing itself over and over against some invisible barrier, a bee at a windowpane seeking ingress or escape.” Nat and Archy sold, above all, “bullshit on tap.”
“Telegraph Avenue” is a love song written to quirky California, a sweet slow song that sounds much better on vinyl than on iTunes. It is dense and somewhat slow-moving at times, and it’s a bit confusing in the beginning, but it paints a rich and layered picture of a unique community.
Above all, it’s a book about adapting to a changing world. Can Archy and Nat stay in business in a world dominated by online shopping and mass retail? Can Archy’s marriage survive when new children, old children and old secrets arrive? Can Berkeley and Oakland and Brokeland remain distinctive in a homogenizing world? Does it matter?