Michael Chabon’s jazzy latest book, ‘Telegraph Avenue,’ an exciting ride
January 17, 2013
I vicariously revisited a neighborhood I once knew, reading how it appears these days in Michael Chabon’s book “Telegraph Avenue.” The esteemed 49-year-old Chabon lives in Berkeley and has written seven novels, including 2001’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” Reading Chabon’s words is a pleasure. Here’s an example: “Like a hoard of family diamonds sewn into the hems and hidden pockets of an exile’s cloak, Oakland was salted secretly with wonders, even here, at its fetid, half-rotten raggedy-ass end.” “Telegraph Avenue” is a book I recommend to anyone who likes to read, is into music and who might know East Bay Area landmarks, including Mosswood Park, site of legendary playground basketball courts. Its critical acclaim even seems to have brought some good luck and ancillary civic pride. Since “Telegraph Avenue” was released in September, the A’s won their division and the Warriors are having their best season since they had Rick Barry with his granny free throws. Enhanced throughout with esoteric music — mostly jazz — references, the story line follows the two families of Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, owners of a used vinyl store, Brokeland Records. The nation’s fifth wealthiest African-American, former NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, ostensibly plans to boost his hometown’s economy by building a five-story, 60,000-square-foot Dogpile music megastore two blocks away. It’s a deeper plot than corporation vs. small business. Goode says his intentions are altruistic. He wants to redirect black music’s “post-apocalyptic” paradigm with his music center. One of the most revered contemporary artists, RZA, he incredulously states, can’t even play “a (blank) kazoo.” “Telegraph Avenue” includes Quentin Tarantino’s homage to blaxploitation and has a Pam Grier-like character from “Jackie Brown.” There’s also kung fu, comic books, analogies, metaphors and detailed addressing of delicate subjects like fatherhood, midwifery, racism, murder and bisexuality, all vividly described in Chabon’s complex delivery. His mastery of description and dialogue sometimes goes far enough to make a reader cringe. But, mostly, Chabon makes him feel as if he is driving through the neighborhood listening to William DeVaughan’s “Be Thankful for What You Got,” with a left hand on the steering wheel doing the gangster lean, digging the scene, hoping to duck adversity that might be around the corner.