Birth, death and music

Michael Chabon's new novel is a celebration of a melting-pot culture and a hymn to vintage records

By David Herman, September 21, 2012

Telegraph Avenue/ By Michael Chabon/ Fourth Estate, £18.99 (PB £14.99)

Amoeba, the famous Californian cornucopia of records that began life on Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, San Francisco

Amoeba, the famous Californian cornucopia of records that began life on Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, San Francisco

Michael Chabon is best known for two novels — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union — which brought together modern Jewish history and American popular culture.
His new one could hardly be more different. First, there are almost no Jews. Even the formidable Irene Jew turns out to be “a ninety-year-old Chinese master of kung fu.” Second, it is set in a very different time and place.

Telegraph Avenue is in Oakland, the poorest area in San Francisco, part-black, part-boho. The time is 2001, but there are many references to 1960s and ’70s black culture: blaxploitation movies, soul music, Shaft, Isaac Hayes.

At the book’s heart are two — interconnected — relationships. Nat Jaffe and Archey Stallings are trying to save Brokeland Records, a vintage-record store on its knees, unable to compete in the new world of malls and online shopping. More than a shop, it is the symbol of a bygone world.

Both men are married to midwives, Aviva Roth-Jaffe and Gwen Shanks, who have their own passion — natural childbirth — and are equally embattled, fighting against the medical establishment who regard them as indulging in something close to voodoo. Through these relationships, Chabon creates a rich world full of unforgettable characters.

As he weaves in and out of their lives, Chabon asks some important questions. In these fast-changing times, how do neighbourhoods survive? What holds us together as families fall apart?
At the end of the novel, Chabon writes: “It was all about the neighbourhood.” And this neighbourhood is more than the eponymous thoroughfare, Telegraph Avenue. It is a way of life, a set of values, which bring together gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor.

The key speech comes at a funeral held in the record store. The dead man lived for his music, which was — like everything else in the novel — a mix: “‘Church music, jump music, rock and roll, hard bop, soul jazz,’” — what the funeral orator calls, “Brokeland Creole”.

“‘Creole’…” he goes on, “‘to me, it sums it up. That means you stop drawing those lines’.” This is at the core of Telegraph Avenue. All Chabon’s characters, in their very different ways, cross lines, trying to find ways of connecting with their past and healing broken lives. Sons try to reconcile themselves with estranged fathers, wives try to hold their marriages together.

His novel could not be more American, with its love of slang and of the new, its insights into different worlds, revelling in the variety of modern America.

There is even a cameo appearance by the young Barack Obama. The style is pure Chabon. It crackles and flows. It is a joy to read. And, amid it all, it asks important questions about our time.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:11pm, September 21 2012