Telegraph Avenue: A Novel
By Michael Chabon
Harper, 480 pages
Until his latest novel—his fifth in 24 years—Michael Chabon’s career had separated neatly into two stages. His first two novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1995), were ambling, warm-hearted tales of a large and loosely associated cast of characters (old college friends, attendees at a writers’ conference) who get in and out of trouble and fall in and out of love within a few days and a few square miles. If there was nothing much at stake, there was also nothing to excite protest or assent. The tone was fond. Chabon obviously liked his characters, and his reader could not help but like them, too. They talked incessantly, worked little, drank and smoked too much (marijuana, mostly), confused sexual experimentation with the search for meaning. But they were no danger to themselves or anyone else, although pets and memorabilia might be put at risk. The real menace was in the prose. Chabon wrote beautifully, even lusciously, bestowing distinctive epithets and vivid similes, colors and flavors and odors and quirks, on every-thing he described. And, boy, did he like to describe things!
In a photograph, a girl “has adopted a disheveled, Thursday-night-at-home-with-my-boyfriend pose, ripped sweatshirt collar dipped over one round olive shoulder, face uncharacteristically Levantine (her father was related to the great Pittsburgh Tambellinis), saintly.” A kitchen remodeled in the 1970s is a “veritable fiesta of goldenrod and avocado and burnt orange accents, [its] cabinets clad in walnut Formica, adorned with elaborate gilt handles,” the air smelling of “scorched butter and caramelized onions.” A weeks-old embryo is a “tiny zygote rolling like a satellite through the starry dome of [a] womb.” Occasionally the prose would stop to admire itself, but for better or worse it was a continuous surprise. If they were nothing else, the books were great fun to read. That seemed indeed to be the spirit in which they were conceived. Their author liked to think of himself as “the host of a party,” he told USA Today. “If someone isn’t having a good time, of course it concerns you.”
The question whether Chabon’s first two novels were anything more than a good time rarely came up. Critics were delighted with them. Jonathan Yardley was simply more enthusiastic than most when he spoke for the critical consensus in the Washington Post: “Chabon leaves no doubt that he is the young star of American letters, ‘star’ not in the current sense of cheap celebrity but in the old one of brightly shining hope.” The English novelist and critic Philip Hensher was nearly alone in expressing doubt, observing in the Guardian that the “bizarre events” of Chabon’s fiction “don’t serve much in the way of a purpose.”
Chabon himself may have entertained some such doubt. Five years after Wonder Boys—a writer’s book about being a writer—he reinvented himself as a Jewish novelist. And thus began the second stage of his career. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) not only won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but also was named one of the “one hundred greatest works of modern Jewish literature” by the National Yiddish Book Center. It is an ambitious and sprawling 600-page portrait of an era, the so-called Golden Age of Comics from the late 30s to the early 50s, about a Jewish writer-and-artist team who create a superhero like the other costume-wearing crime fighters—Superman, Batman, Captain America—created by other Jewish writer-and-artist teams during the same period. Chabon treats comic books as a subgenre of modern Jewish literature, a reworking of European Jewish legend in vernacular American colors. “To me,” says his Jewish artist, “this Superman is…maybe…only an American Golem”—the legendary man of clay first brought magically to life in 16th-century Prague. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay includes fascinating background on the early comic-book industry, and of course there is the signature exuberance of Chabon’s style. But the novel is marred by a Holocaust subtext that, while yielding the customary chills, disappears into a moral muddle upon subsequent reflection.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) is even more deeply confused. An “alternate history”—a science fiction genre in which history turns out differently—the novel imagines what life would be like in a modern Yiddish-speaking enclave. During the Holocaust, a protectorate was carved out for Jewish refugees on the Alaskan island of Sitka. Its population now numbers in the millions. There is no Jewish state; the Arabs overran it three months after its birth in 1948. Crime here is organized by Hasidim, who have found “a way to remake the old-style black-hat detachment” in the new world. The murder of the rebbe’s son, a prodigy in Jewish law and a drug addict who “tied off” with his leather tefillin, leads to the discovery of a U.S.-backed plot to funnel arms to religion-crazed Jews who want to blow up the Dome of the Rock and grab Pales-tine from the Arabs. Even if Israel did not exist, in other words, Zionism would duplicate its violent history—although how such troubling knowledge is possible, in an “alternate” world from which this history has vanished, is never explained.
Chabon enjoyed his public Jewish identity. The trouble, however, was that it served him as little more than cover for the anti-Zionism he had first tried out in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. In June 2010, for example, during the controversy over the Israeli Navy’s seizure of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish “aid” ship bound for Gaza, Chabon wrote an op-ed for the New York Times lamenting that the Jews were not “on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people,” as he had been taught as a child. He was hurt and angered, but also relieved by Israel’s “blockheadedness.” As a prominent Jewish author, he felt it was his duty to say that “implicit in the Zionist idea from the beginning,” along with the right to Jewish sovereignty, has been a capacity for “barbarism and stupidity.” The Jews cannot claim to be God’s chosen people and then complain when they are held to a “different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” They might judge themselves according to God’s law, but for Chabon the standard was more demanding: The Jews should never embarrass the author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Whatever purpose Chabon found in Jewish fiction, then, seemed more like tendentiousness than what Bernard Malamud called a “mighty theme” that “proliferates possibilities in every thought.” In Telegraph Avenue, his first novel in five years, Chabon abandons the role of Jewish authority, for which he is suited neither by temperament nor learning. And in doing so—in emphasizing another role instead—he may have stumbled upon his true theme. Not incidentally, he may also have written his best book yet.
Telegraph Avenue tells the story of two families whose lives are knotted together by partnerships in two businesses. Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings (aka “Turtle”) are co-owners of Brokeland Records, a “used vinyl” store located on “the ragged fault where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted.” They also play together in a jazz quartet called the Wakanda Philharmonic (Nat on lead guitar, Archy on bass). Their wives, Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks, operate Berkeley Birth Partners, a practice in “modern midwifery,” the ancient profession that now, primarily serving wealthy white women in the Berkeley hills, has a “taint of the boutique” about it. The Jaffes are good secular Jewish liberals, indelibly marked by what their gay teenaged son Julius calls a “hopeless Berkeletude”—they are vegans, they drive old Swedish cars—but Archy and Gwen live in Oakland, and they are black.
Brokeland Records is the central setting and symbol of the novel. A “minor kingdom” that is “nearly the last of its kind,” it used to be a barbershop, and for 12 years now, ever since Archy returned from the Gulf War to enter into business with Nat, it has fulfilled the same communal function that the barbershop once did, bringing together musicians and music lovers, local residents and local politicians, to exchange gossip and opinions. As dealers in used records (mainly jazz), Nat and Archy see themselves as the “guardians of some ancient greatness that must never be tainted or altered.” Chabon eagerly lists the recording studio and release date for every album that gets mentioned, and he describes playing styles in a serviceable imitation of jazz criticism. But the musical knowledge is an entertaining distraction, like a sausage race between innings in a baseball game. Brokeland Records could sell hardware, or greeting cards, and it would still be what it is—a symbol for place, the geographical locus for responsibility and decision. As Nat says, “If I don’t have this place? I’m not sure I really have a place.”
Telegraph Avenue is a return to the earlier mode of Wonder Boys, in which a collision of events is squeezed into a few short days. The year is 2004. As the novel opens, Nat and Archy have just learned that a music megastore with a used-record department larger than their entire inventory will be opening down the block, dooming Brokeland Records to extinction. Gwen, 36 weeks pregnant with their first child, discovers Archy’s infidelity with an Ethiopian beauty and leaves him. His 14-year-old illegitimate son Titus—of whose existence Archy was unaware—shows up from Tyler, Texas. The Berkeley Birth Partners botch a birth, and afterwards Gwen verbally assaults an obstetrician in the hospital, getting their privileges yanked and putting their future in doubt. A jazzman named Cochise Jones, Archy’s spiritual father, dies the same evening they are scheduled to play at a Kerry for President fundraiser where a state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama puts in an eloquent appearance. Archy’s biological father, a onetime blaxploitation actor and karate champion named Luther Stallings, surfaces to demand money and oblige Archy to confront what it means to abandon a son.
The novel has an explicit ideological theme and an implicit moral theme. On the level of ideology, Chabon affirms an ideal he calls “Brokeland Creole” (the italics are his). He uses Archy’s voice, haltingly delivering the eulogy at Cochise Jones’s funeral, to explain:
Creole, that’s, to me, it sums it up. 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. Cochise Jones, his mother was mostly, uh, Choctaw, I think it was. Me, my father’s half Mexican, which is already half something else. Brokeland Creole.
This is, of course, little more than an affirmation of the “hybridity” and multiculturalism that is now preferred, among hipsters and lifestyle liberals, to purity and authenticity. The mix and intermingling of races along “the vague and crooked frontier of Telegraph Avenue,” the diversity of ethnic restaurants, the heterogeneity of cultural references from Spider-Man and The Rockford Files to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Philip Larkin: This overflowing profusion is the body electric Chabon sings. There are plenty of such touches—socialist grandparents, PBS tote bags, alternative weeklies, Obama’s eloquence—but they do not belong to the novel’s economy of meaning. They are verbal tsatskes scattered about by a fussy author who can leave no inch of his book unadorned.
The true subject of Telegraph Avenue is fatherhood. At the beginning of the novel, Archy is not ready to become a father and doesn’t even know that he already has a son, but he realizes that “fatherhood imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.” By the end of the novel, Archy has atoned for his unfaithfulness to his wife and his unsuspecting abandonment of Titus, made his peace with the father who abandoned him, and understands that losing them would scar him far more painfully than losing his business. The other characters also accept the changes—Nat converts Brokeland Records into an online store, Gwen quits midwifery for medical school—but the most profound change is Archy’s acceptance of the never-ending obligation of fatherhood.
Except for John Williams’s lovely and largely unknown Stoner, now nearly a half-century old, there may not be another American novel about fatherhood. American literature is a low-fertility-rate literature in which daily life, like Daisy Buchanan’s, seems arranged to relieve men and women of parenthood’s burdens. Michael Chabon, who has four children of his own, has not only filled a lack with Telegraph Avenue. He has reasserted the truth about what is most important in life. If he keeps on writing novels in which fashionable liberal attitudes are merely part of the décor and the central message derives instead from the deep affection for people he so obviously feels, perhaps he will end up to be the star of his literary generation after all.