Michael Chabon, the literary wunderkind, won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which conjured up the American comic book industry in the glory days of the 1930s and 1940s. His latest novel, “Telegraph Avenue” (HarperCollins: $27.99), flashes forward to the embattled America in which we live today and focuses on the ragged edge of our popular culture, where comic books, trading cards and vinyl records have been reduced to the status of swap-meet “collectibles.” Still, Chabon continues to see something essential and even metaphysical in the fabulous variety of such cultural artifacts.
The focal point of the new novel is Brokeland Records, a used-record store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley whose very existence is threatened by the planned opening of a megamall known as the “Dogpile Thang.” The arch villain is Gibson Goode, a former pro quarterback who has reinvented himself as a business mogul, “the fifth-richest black man in America.” The battleground is found among the multiethnic neighborhoods of Oakland and Berkeley, a place where — at least as Chabon imagines it — a former Black Panther who works his own rough justice on a local drug dealer with a sawed-off shotgun can end up on the City Council.
The heroes of the piece are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, the proprietors of Brokeland Records, and their spouses, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe (“the Alice Waters of midwives”), who operate Berkeley Birth Partners and are waging a war of their own against corporate medicine. What’s at stake in the lives of all of Chabon’s characters, however, goes far beyond the threats posed by the shopping mall or the for-profit hospital. A moral code, a civilizing aspiration and a whole way of life — all symbolized here by the subculture of the collectible — are endangered by the corporate commercialism.
“Though Mr. Nostalgia loved the things he sold, he had no illusion that they held any intrinsic value,” writes Chabon of one character who trafficks in trading cards of various kinds. “They were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you. Their value was indexed only in the sense of personal completeness, perfection of the soul, that would flood you when, at last, you filled the last gap on your checklist.”
The same cosmic calculation applies to the vinyl records that Archy and Nat buy and sell out of their storefront operation on Telegraph. One of their valued customers, for example, works as an attorney to support his habit as “a three-hundred-dollar-a-month abuser of polyvinyl chloride.” But the owners of Brokeland Records are growing weary of “the gloomy professional prospect of endless Dumpster dives and crate digs, every day dropping like a spindled platter on top of the next.” From their discouraged perspective, selling out to the diabolical mall developer sometimes seems like a kind of salvation.
“You’re offering me a job,” Archy says to Goode, who replies: “You could look at it that way. Or you could look at it, I am offering you a mission.”
The threat that the Dogpile Thang poses to Brokeland Records is almost beside the point, because, as Chabon explains, “the truth was, they were already f---ed.” The real problem is that the very earth beneath their feet is shifting, and the little cracks in the American economy that once sheltered marginal guys like Archy and Nat were closing up. “Brokeland Records was nearly the last of its kind,” writes Chabon, “Ishi, Chingachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon.”
The narrative thrust of “Telegraph Avenue” — a long, leisurely and lyrical novel — runs on several parallel tracks, including the familial yearnings and failings of its leading characters, the hothouse politics of the idiosyncratic East Bay, and the seismic tremors that unsettle contemporary America. I suspect that all of these story lines are close to Chabon’s heart; he is, after all, writing about the place where he lives and works, and he breathes life into characters that could exist nowhere else.
But Chabon’s real genius is the fuguelike language of literary ornamentation that adorns all of his work, the riffing and raving of a writer in love not only with the meaning of words, but also with their rhythm and sound, “a strange fizz of wonder [that] seemed to engulf him, as if he had been dropped like an ice cube into a glass of sparkling water,” if I may repurpose one characteristic flourish.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published under the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.