Frontier Psychiatrist

Deep Groove: A Review of Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

Posted on: October 9, 2012

Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue, Fiction

Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue connects Oakland and Berkeley, two cities whose historically different racial compositions have earned them separate boilerplate reputations in the mind of outsiders: Oakland, gritty, home of the Raiders, music Mecca, melting pot; Berkeley, local, micro-climate-gifted, capital of yuppie fantasyland. Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, is set against and among such clichés as it tells of two couples, one black and one white, for whom the eponymous avenue and environs are everything.

Issues of race shot through the twin lenses of pop-culture and politics are all over Telegraph Avenue. The Black Panthers and Huey Newton play a part, as do Kung-Fu, big old American cars, and Pam Grier. There’s funk, soul, R&B, and the real meaning behind “A Love Supreme.” Chabon runs down the history of black music in the East Bay and how the first black workers came to Oakland. Nearly an entire funeral eulogy is given to expounding upon what Creole signifies. There’s a white lawyer desperate to sound “black,” and a white teenager who thinks he knows what the inside of his black friend’s house will look like before entering. And we get a black midwife’s vow to become a doctor so “then when I reach out to a black woman while she’s having a baby, maybe then she’s going to reach back.” Her white business partner, “the Alice Waters of midwives,” doesn’t understand the urgency behind the promise.

The main players are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, friends and co-proprietors of Brokeland Records, a failing used vinyl shop on Telegraph Avenue; their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, partners in a successful but imperiled East Bay home-birthing business; and the various family that each couple calls their own, voluntarily or otherwise. The arrivals of a mini-chain of successful record stores, a new baby, and a pair of far-flung relatives, however, threaten to capsize everything that the two couples have known, wanted, and worked for.

On the one hand, Telegraph Avenue requires a commitment to Chabon’s entrenched style: well-spoken if bumbling eccentrics, frequent dives into arcana (here it’s all things music as well as black cinema of the 1970s), and quixotic rules of order. As in his previous work, the characters are people of conviction, romantics who ultimately believe in the salvation of the place they call home but are nonetheless prone to self-sabotage along the way. In Telegraph Avenue, as always, they are the vehicles for Chabon’s favorite topics: obsessives; community; fathers and sons and the gutsy women who have no choice but to love them; overripe sexuality; politics; and the prerogatives of the middle class. (Though comparatively light on Judaism, Chabon does employ Nat Jaffe’s white Jewishness in service of proving the porousness of racial/cultural divides: Nat’s wife happens to be the first white woman he ever fell for; and, in a take on another set of clichés, he makes muster-passing fried chicken, biscuits, beans, and collard greens, courtesy of his stepmother’s handed-down recipes).

As in Chabon’s earlier books—the novels, only; with a few exceptions, his short stories are ho-hum for someone so in command of dialogue and pacing, and his non-fiction is treacly—his characters have a nostalgia for the almost-lost that threatens to outpace their ability to save the thing itself from sliding away. It never does, but Chabon seems most interested in this investigation.

Chabon has always stressed the importance of setting, whether in contemporary Pittsburgh (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys), mid-20th century New York City (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), or a fictional Zion holdout in Alaska (Yiddish Policeman’s Union). But these novels all treated location from a remove: a distance, resulting from an emotional need, or else a geographic or temporal fact, which rendered the action somewhat diorama-like. What distinguishes Telegraph Avenue from its predecessors is Chabon’s serious love for the place where his characters live, unsurprising since the author and his family live in Berkeley.

This love for place supplies Telegraph Avenue with a convincing tenderness. You get the sense that Chabon is writing about things that he doesn’t even think about when he thinks about writing: the shop that sells doughnuts and Chinese food; good California pot and the cute taxonomies thereof; what kind of incense fogs in a home-birth. You get lines like this: “The dream had returned all that, the way a day at Stinson—the sourdough bite of a Negro Modelo, the rattle of a kite on the wind—could be restored to you by an old calendar page in a bottom drawer.” And characters who frame Brokeland’s demise like this:

What that Abreu said the other day at the meeting, he was right. [Brokeland’s] an institution. You all go out of business, I don’t know. I might have to let in some kind of new age ladies, sell yoga mats. Everybody having ‘silence days,’ walking around with little signs hanging from their neck saying ‘I Am Silent Today.’ I would take that as a loss.

What Telegraph Avenue makes clear is that Chabon’s East Bay is a redoubt against intrusion. His central figures have a low-to-zero tolerance for being messed with and, when confronted with bullshit, end up proving themselves to be highly adaptable. They rebuff or coopt the external forces of change, wielding them to make progress on their own terms, and the Oakland/Berkeley corridor that they know survives another day. Ultimately, the novel is not only a mash note to the East Bay, but a testament to the value of home.

Chris Lillis Meatto is an archivist and librarian in New York. He likes print materials just fine, thank you. This is his first piece for Frontier Psychiatrist.

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