Over the years, Michael Chabon has been something of a shape-shifter. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” he has written comic books, fantasy novels, serialized fiction, detective stories — sampling the sounds of genres that are as far apart in literary terms as Otis Redding and the Cure are in music.
With his astounding new novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” however, he has taken that artistic restlessness and applied its energy toward imagining the Great American Novel with a multiracial cast. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but this is major.
Set in Oakland, Calif., in the summer of 2004, straddling two families, Jewish and black, and two businesses — one a falling-down vinyl shop endangered by a huge chain store about to open, the other a midwife business that grew out of black culture now catering primarily to whites — this is not just a tale of two cities. It is a book about the pleasures of doing what you love, and the pain of having to give that up. Like Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” it holds aloft the age-old American notion of self-actualization over a flame and finds its melting point. Like Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” it turns an ear to how we speak today and plays it back to us.
The cast of this book is big. Over five long sections, which unfold with the same endless lung-capacity of John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” Chabon drops us into their grooves and plays their tunes. Archy Stallings, son of a one-time blaxploitation hero with a criminal-ish past, is about to repeat the mistakes of his own deadbeat dad. Archy’s wife, Gwen, is 36 weeks pregnant with their first child, and his business, Brokeland Records, purveyor of quality vinyl from the funk, blues, and soul eras, is about four weeks away from going under. On top of it all, Archy has once again been caught with another woman.
Gwen has problems aside from her shameless man. Birth Partners, the midwife business she runs with Aviva Roth Jaffe, wife of Archy’s business partner, Nat, is facing a lawsuit from a disgruntled father. Catching babies the old-fashioned way, which once seemed like a noble task, suddenly seems a backward step for a well-educated black woman. You wouldn’t know she was, though, by how doctors speak to her. Time and again, she has dealt with this confrontation by keeping her cool. Apologizing, even when not sorry. But now she’s had enough.
“Telegraph Avenue” riffs again and again on apologies and forgiveness, and how too much of the latter can become a kind of erasure of dignity. Oakland itself, once the terminus point for Pullman railroad cars, and therefore one type of Ground Zero for the black middle class, makes a perfect backdrop for such a story.
It’s a town full of ghosts, lost chances, schemes, and people who apologize themselves into obsolescence.
One of the book’s more memorable characters, an aging musician named Cochise Jones who glides about town in vintage leisure suits with a parrot named Fifty-Eight on his shoulder, feels “trapped inside that nice old gentleman” image, “smiling, chuckling, as he had inside the wooden-Indian cool of his youth.” Archy is forever sorry for his dalliances, Gwen for being black, and Nat, well, Nat for being white.
In the second half of the book Nat kicks off a neighborhood block association to resist the arrival of ex-NFL star and hip-hop mogul Gibson Goode’s megastore. Born and raised in Oakland, with a black stepmother and a sense around the kitchen, Nat applies some down-home logic to his pitch to a local black leader he wants to swing. He makes up a basket of fried chicken and okra, brings it by the man’s office, but then nearly breaks the spell by winking at the councilman’s muscle, “a standard gambit of an environmentally nervous white man.”
It’s not just between blacks and whites that this burlesquing happens. It’s between friends and family, too. A love child born of Archy’s youth turns up in Oakland, all of 14, and promptly starts an affair with Nat and Aviva’s gay son. The seduction unfolds entirely through acting out martial-arts films. Fatherhood is another role that Archy, perpetually indecisive, loyal only to himself, thinks he can fake. “He could take the business seriously, it seemed to [Gwen], only to the extent that he knew enough, most of the time, to pretend to take it seriously.”
In recent books, Chabon’s prose has had a willed cleverness, as if warped by the pressure drops of dipping in and out of so many genres so quickly. Here he is in full flow again. His long, gorgeous sentences have the truth and clarity of good music on vinyl. The East Bay unfurls on these pages like an endlessly repeating, mesmerising funk ballad. It’s all in the downbeat: tempeh-munching yogis, Pynchonian-named henchmen in $300 track suits, kung-fu studios, the erosion of barbershops, the cult of local baseball, all those kneeling buses.
And cars. This book sings some of the most beautiful, hilarious, and onomatopoeic sentences about cars I’ve ever read. Where else do Americans apologize less for who they are? Archy drives a 1974 El Camino, “a choogling slab of lost Detroit,” his father a “crocodile-green” 1970 Oldsmobile Toronado. One of Goode’s henchmen rolls in an Omni GLH, “[c]aution-yellow with black Band-Aid strips, its exhaust tuned to a baritone Gerry Mulligan growl.”
For a book stuffed with so many riffs and detours, “Telegraph Avenue” also has startling harmonies and symmetries. It begins and ends with a man holding a baby, and everything that happens in-between steamrolls the barrier that has kept the Great American Novel at odds with the country it’s supposed to reflect. “Creole,” Archy says, in explaining the Brokeland Records musical aesthetic. “That means you stop drawing those lines. It means Africa and Europe cooked up in the same skillet. Chopin, hymns, Irish music, polyrhythms, talking drums. And people.” With this huge-hearted, funny, improbably hip book, Michael Chabon has proven it is possible in fiction, too.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta magazine and author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.”