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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Back in those golden days when we extracted our music with
diamond tips from impressively large petroleum-based
platters, I made frequent pilgrimages to various shrines of
recorded sound on the West Coast.  In those now defunct
emporiums, the choicest disks were
held up for veneration, and possible
purchase, by devotees.  My vision
quest took me from
Rhino Records
on Westwood Boulevard to Village
Music in Mill Valley and all the way
up to
Bud's Jazz Records in Seattle
—names that are now mere whispers
from the past.  Shrines, I learned
painfully, live only as long as the
deities they serve.

Telegraph Avenue, a stretch of road
that runs from downtown Oakland
and terminates at the campus of UC
Berkeley, was the epicenter of my
fervor for vinyl.  On and about this street, connoisseurs
found every kind of LP, from the rarest to the squarest,
and the vinyl cult was so strong that it even survives on
Telegraph, to some degree, in this present day of
disbelievers. Here we find Rasputin and Amoeba and,
around the corner on Durant, the former sites of the
grand Leopold Records and, a few feet away, its mega-
chain rival Tower Records.

Formidable functionaries guarded these premises,
demanding proper respect for rituals and observances.  
I still recall visiting Leopold Records the same day Keith
Jarrett strolled into the store (in town for a concert at the
Berkeley Community Theater; I had a ticket in my pocket
for the very same), and got into a dispute with the
lowliest clerk in Leopold-land, a scraggly cat who looked
like he was still in high school, but insisted that the jazz
star (whose
The Köln Concert had just become the
biggest selling piano album in history) check in his
backpack at the front counter like the rest of the
congregation. Something had to give, and it was the
mighty Jarrett, who stormed away in meager, ineffective
protest.

The conflict between indie retailer Leopold Records and
chain behemoth Tower Records is echoed in the central
plot of Michael Chabon's new novel
Telegraph Avenue.   
Brokeland Records operates on Telegraph at the juncture
of Berkeley and Oakland, hence its down-and-out name.  
The store's proprietors, white Jewish Nat Jaffe and his
black partner Archy Stallings, are also down-and-out,
reeling from the rise of downloading and web retailing.  
But now they are threatened by an even bigger enemy:
the impending arrival of an enormous chainstore
competitor, the Dogpile
Thang, that promises to put
these jazz-loving buddies out of business.

Dogpile is the corporate holding company of Gibson
Goode, aka G Bad, former NFL star now turned entre-
preneur, who is revitalizing black neighborhoods with his
ambitious music emporiums. Goode has friends in high
places, and takes them even higher, when he wines and
dines them in his private black zeppelin. Nat spearheads a
grassroots community protest to block his new competitor,
but how can Brokeland's ragtag supporters, just a few
loyal customers and local eccentrics, stop the former
quarterback who made his career eluding opponents and
pulling out victories?

Related Reviews of Novels by Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Gentlemen of the Road

The ebony and ivory partnership of the two record store
owners—"Africa and Europe cooked up in the same
skillet," in the words of Stallings—is mirrored in the
relationship of their spouses, Gwen and Aviva, two
midwives who jointly run a birthing clinic in Berkeley.   
And the next generation also gets into the act. Young
Julius ‘Julie’ Jaffe, has a severe boy crush on Archie's
son Titus.  But these inspiring examples of interracial
cooperation are fraught with conflict and confusion, and
it's unclear whether any one of them will survive to the
book's conclusion.  

Chabon is skilled at interweaving plots and subplots,
complications and surprises, but
Telegraph Avenue is
his most intricately constructed novel to date.  Each of
these storylines—Archy and Nat's retail battle for survival,
Gwen and Aviva's birthing business, the fractious romance
of Julie and Titus—are fully developed and smartly
narrated. But Chabon more than does justice to several
other engaging plots—the attempts by Archy's father
Luther Stallings to revive his dormant movie career as a
black action hero in a Shaft vein; Luther's female sidekick
and lover Valletta Moore, a Pam Grier type best known for
her cinematic catchphrase "Do what you gotta do, and
stay fly";  the mystery of an unsolved murder linked to
the Black Panthers during the days of Huey Newton; and
the exploits of Cochise Jones, Hammond organ player who
once had a semi-hit record at the tail end of the R&B
charts, and now presides over Brokeland as a father figure
to boys, men and feathered creatures.

Chabon delivers the kind of fine writing that I enjoy best,
namely that old-school sentence-by-sentence crafts-
manship, marked by sweet metaphors, peppery dialogue,
and unexpected but apt comparisons and contrasts, all
covered by a generous sprinkling of cultural bric-à-brac.  
Those who have read any of Chabon's previous novels are
familiar with this casual mastery, no less impressive for
the typically unostentatious manner of delivery. Yet
Chabon, in a surprising turnabout, does get ostentatious,
at several junctures in this novel, strutting and
grandstanding as he reaches for more extreme effects.

The most notable example is the eleven-page run-on
sentence that fills up a whole chapter of
Telegraph
Avenue
—making me wonder if Mr. Chabon passed on
those East Bay donuts he lavishly praises in favor of a
Proustian madeleine on the day he set off on this
prodigiously prolonged passage.  Elsewhere in this book,
he falls under the sway of Quentin Tarantino, and mimics
the prose styles of populist genre writers, such as
Fritz
Leiber and H.P. Lovecraft.  Here's a taste (appropriately
distasteful) of the latter:

“This record of sorrow is being penned in human blood on
parchment made from the hides of drowned sailors.  Its
unhappy author—O pity me, friend, wherever you lie at
your ease!—perches by the high window of a lightning-
blasted tower…chained at the ankle to an iron bedstead,
gnawing on the drumstick of a roasted rat….”

In short, Chabon is trying to out-do himself here, deliver
all of his familiar stock-in-trade, but like the ambitious
retailers he describes in these pages, also pull out some
hitherto unseen goodies, both strange and wonderful.  
Not all of it works, and on occasion I sense Chabon
straining for effects, losing that offhand ease that must
be so hard-won.  But for the most part, he pulls it off,
and delivers a work that can stand proudly alongside his
earlier masterworks, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning
2000 novel
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, currently being turned
into a film by the Coen brothers. (I could see them doing
the same with
Telegraph Avenue, which captures an
aesthetic vision similar to that of their best films.)

Chabon effectively evokes the hippie-progressive-gritty
urban ambiance of the stretch of Berkeley and Oakland
that serves as setting for most of the book's action.  
Readers might even assume that the novelist grew up in
this area (instead of Pittsburgh and Columbia, Maryland,
where he actually came of age), so intimate is his
familiarity with the locale and its history. And, as
befitting a book so heavily focused on black music and
its aficionados, Chabon offers up some choice commentary
and comparisons on the most and least righteous LPs of
a bygone era. Sometimes this is just a passing reference.  
We encounter an elevator that bangs, moos and screeches
like "Sun Ra and that whole awful Arkestra trapped inside
of an MRI machine."  G. Bad's zeppelin is named the
Minnie Riperton, because: "She is black.  She is beautiful.
And she goes really high."  Elsewhere he dishes up
extravagant but cool comparisons between those who
preserve black musical traditions and the monks in
A
Canticle for Leibowitz and Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's
Foundation books.  But the most penetrating pop culture
commentary here is delivered by bad guy G. Goode—or is
he really good guy G. Bad?—who sermonizes an inspired,
profanity-laced history of black music in modern America,
funny and smart and opinionated, all while enjoying the
fine view from the HMS Minnie Riperton.  I won't try to
summarize or condense his homily—you need to check it
out in its entirety.  

T.S. Eliot once summed up human experience in three
words: "birth, copulation and death." "Those are the
facts," the poet notes, “when you get to brass tacks.”  
Chabon provides ample examples of each in this
ambitious book.  Indeed, this may be the first novel I've
read that has even more births than copulations and
deaths put together—quite a claim when you consider
that an extended family of undertakers plays a prominent
role in the pages of
Telegraph Avenue. But Chabon also
has his own successful delivery here.  I’m giving him an
Apgar score of ten for this book, and suggesting that, a
decade after nabbing the Pulitzer in fiction, he might
have just earned the right to be considered for a
second.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Telegraph
Avenue

by Michael Chabon
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