Race, the great American subject, suffuses Michael Chabon’s brilliant new novel, not as an issue but as a fact of life. Telegraph Avenue revolves around a used-LP shop in predominantly African-American Oakland, just down that road from the University of California in Berkeley. Brokeland Records—its forlorn name combines those of the two cities—is more a local hangout than an actual business. Best friends Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, one Jewish and the other black, run the store on their shared love of jazz and the meaning it gives their lives.
Nat, the “latest chapter of luftmenschen, ineptitudes, and bankrupts going all the way back to Minsk Guberniya” on his father’s side, was raised by a black stepmother whose kitchen specialties included fried chicken and collard greens. As a boy Nat’s friends were mostly black, and his wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, was the first white woman he was romantically interested in. Julius Jaffe, Aviva and Nat’s 14-year-old son, has a teenage crush on an African-American boy the same age named Titus, whom he meets at a summer enrichment course about film.
Aviva, “the Alice Waters of midwives,” practices her profession with her close friend Gwen Shanks, who is also Archy’s wife. Gwen chronically resents the lack of respect she senses for her work as a midwife and as a black woman, a feeling aggravated by the feckless Archy’s philandering. If that weren’t enough, Titus turns out to be Archy’s son by another woman, arriving in their lives while Gwen herself is pregnant.
When a rumored megastore threatens to put Brokeland out of business, Archy, faced with the impending arrival of an infant son and the dim prospects for his shop, flirts with defecting to the competitor. Nat, a combative contrarian drawn to the defense of lost causes, swears meanwhile never to give up the store. Gwen, fed up with problems at work and at home, considers separating from Archy and begins to question her calling of “bringing new hotheads, failures, and fools into the world.” How each of them comes to terms with his or her choices forms the axis of the story.
Archy has the most unfinished business to deal with. For all his indecision and lapses as a family man there is an unshakable decency at his core. Abandoned by his own father, he found a surrogate parent in a musician he reveres. That musician’s sudden death—he was crushed by what he loved—prefigures a fate that could befall Archy. When Titus, the son he himself abandoned, comes back into Archy’s life, and Archy becomes the father of a second son as well, he has a new chance for redemption.
Michael Chabon has imagined all his characters in astonishing and wholly persuasive detail, even secondary players like the wonderfully named Garnet (“The King of Bling”) Singletary and the “white guy from Indiana” who says things like “What up?” and “True dat.” Chabon has always been especially good with characters who are adolescent boys or young men, among whom several are gay: Arthur in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Sammy in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, perhaps Mendel Shpilman in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Julie Jaffe, unmistakably gay, finds his first real friend in Titus, whose libido leads him to initiate Julie sexually though Titus is attracted only to women. The way both boys navigate their blossoming friendship is a touching coming-of-age story.
Titus, like Archy, has been scarred by the lack of a father. Film fan that he is, he gets starry-eyed when he discovers his grandfather Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, was an action hero in two blaxploitation films of the 1970s. He desperately needs a paternity that he can be proud of, but Luther, another vivid and unforgettable character, is a false idol, a failure reduced to self-delusion and desperation. Titus is made of stronger stuff, though, and may yet escape the family curse he has inherited.
Chabon’s language, as ever, is sheer joy. Whether detailing the intricacies of a jazz performance or the food on a buffet table he fires all the senses. His wry descriptions are often taken from science fiction, especially Star Trek. When a pompous politician wishes “the lady rabbi from Neshama” a happy new year, “the name of the holiday sounded like something much grander to Nat’s ear, roarsh ha-shanah!, a Klingon affair involving ritual combat and lunar howling.”
He turns an ultrasound examination into a glimpse of the infinite, “that steady whistling from the void: an interstellar signal, a jet exhaled from the pulsing gill of some denizen of the deep. Rhythmic evidence of life from the bottom of the sea or the farthest rim of the universe.” Then he contemplates eternity: “In the end everything was only a ceaseless flow of static, fundamentally no different from silence. The background noise of creation. The implacable flood of time.” That cosmic sense of both the miraculousness and chaos of life, joined with Chabon’s absolute command of his craft, place him among the very greatest contemporary American novelists.
In a masterstroke, Chabon places Nat and Archy in the band at a political fundraising dinner whose main speaker had just become famous for his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Illinois State Senator Barack Obama chats there with a woman who turns out to be Gwen, takes in the music, and figures out that one of the musicians is Gwen’s husband. His words come early in this story but they might serve as its valedictory: “I have met a lot of people,” he observes. “The lucky ones are the people like your husband there. The ones who find work that means something to them. That they can really put their heart into, however foolish it might look to other people.”