In a review of Michael Chabon’s second novel, Wonder Boys, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley challenged Chabon to move beyond the worlds he knew and the things he was comfortable writing about, and stretch for something more. (He told Powell’s in 2000 that he found this inspirational.) Chabon spent the last decade doing just that, running his favorite themes and ideas through the lens of genre fiction and 20th-century pulp, coming up with a tale of comic-book writers that drew heavily from comics itself, and an alternate-history novel about a Jewish state built in Alaska. These novels were terrific, but after a decade of them (and attendant short stories and young-adult novels), there was always the question of whether Chabon would ever return to the more grounded worlds of Wonder Boys and its predecessor.
What makes Telegraph Avenue so thrilling, and one of Chabon’s best, is that he has returned to those worlds, but he’s taken everything he learned from writing his novels of the 2000s with him. Telegraph Avenue is set in one tiny part of Oakland in 2004, and it centers on the relationship between two families. But it expands from that central point like a Spirograph, looping outward to encompass everything from blaxploitation films to the decline of the Black Panthers to the political rise of Barack Obama (the point-of-view character for one short, ill-considered section). With its frank consideration of African-American life in the 21st century, Telegraph Avenue might be Chabon’s riskiest novel yet, as he remains very much a white male author. Yet his compassion for his characters and this world washes away any early concerns and sends the novel spinning along dizzily from plot point to plot point.
The novel’s central families are the African-American Stallings family and the Jewish Jaffe family. Husbands Archy and Nat, respectively, co-own a small, used-vinyl store named Brokeland Records, while wives Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe have a midwife practice. Archy and Gwen are awaiting the birth of their first child. Nat and Aviva are slowly realizing their own teenage son is probably gay. Chabon sets all of this—as well as the “Brokeland” neighborhood the families live in—in motion as quickly as possible, the better to get his intricate plot moving, yet these early sections sketch in the characters so quickly and perfectly that the initial images burnish and deepen as the book goes on.
The press notes for the novel indicate Chabon’s ambitions to write something of a modern Victorian tale, a book that dances among multiple plot points and characters, all while introducing coincidences that would clash in more straightforwardly realistic fiction. Chabon gets around this by dousing the novel in a hefty dose of pop-cultural awareness. The used-vinyl store becomes a repository for oceans of information about ’70s jazz, soul, and funk. Nat and Aviva’s son is fascinated by films, particularly those in the exploitation genre, and his explorations of those corners of the cinematic universe with his friend Titus often suggest that the novel could tip over into such a film at any time.
This gets Chabon around the most problematic issue with modern novelists trying to write something out of Charles Dickens or George Eliot: Those serialized novels functioned much like modern television shows, where sheer plot propulsion was more important than making sure everything was strictly believable. There are numerous bizarre twists in novels of the period that would be laughed out of literature today. Chabon employs many of them, from long-lost relatives reappearing at exactly the wrong time to untimely, gruesome deaths to ghosts returning from the past to blackmail murderers who are now pillars of the community. Yet his touch is always deft, and always leavened by his expert use of pop-culture references, so the only moments when the twists and coincidences grate come in a slightly too pat ending.
But Chabon’s employment of potboiler techniques keeps the book breathlessly readable, as his best work always is. Is it a bit of a strain that both the record store and midwife practice confront potentially business-ending catastrophes on the same day? Sure. But when baked into the book’s love of even more preposterous cultural artifacts, it feels like the least objectionable thing in the novel until it’s more thoroughly considered. The book is filled with vivid characters, shocking twists, and plotting that keeps many storylines spinning, with an expert sense of just where to cliffhang readers to make them long to get back to, say, Archy, before quickly losing themselves in Gwen’s travails.
Yet the book also confronts deep themes, problematic ones that run all along the spine of the American character. In particular, Chabon has written an often-moving book about race, about how it’s possible for white people and black people to be friends and have rich, rewarding friendships, all without either group ever really understanding where the other is coming from. But he’s also written a moving testament to an America that never was, an America of blaxploitation epics and pulpy Marvel comic books, and an America that is starting to seem like a fading shadow, a world of little neighborhood stores that were as important to the lifeblood of their community as the people living there, if not more so.
Telegraph Avenue is a novel of lost promises, of a country and city that offered certain dreams, then cruelly took them away from citizens of all races and creeds. Its characters lose themselves in the perfect worlds they find in pop culture because the real world is one of weed-infested sidewalks and long-abandoned supermarkets, housing endless strings of quickly failing businesses. It’s a quiet call not for a blind fight against homogenization or gentrification, but to hope for some sort of continuity, a single, simple place where people can gather to talk and laugh, and it’ll be just like old times.