Tele­graph Avenue

  • Review
By – January 22, 2013

Race, the great Amer­i­can sub­ject, suf­fus­es Michael Chabons 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.”

Discussion Questions