An achingly poignant vibe of sweet and soulful idealism makes itself heard throughout Michael Chabon’s latest novel, “Telegraph Avenue” (HarperCollins). While it’s set in Oakland, Calif., in 2004, the novel’s realistic backdrop belies the romanticized wistfulness that lies at the core of Chabon’s lively portrait of a community.
There, blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, politicians of every party, all manage to overcome their own latent (and sometimes blatant) prejudices to settle conflicts, both personal and public, and live peacefully together. It’s a vision infused with a sense of tikkun olam, the desire to repair the world, and given Chabon’s concerns in his previous works, perhaps that is no wonder.
This is the 13th book by the 49-year-old Chabon, who remains best known for two novels whose central themes speak to Jewish history. “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001, tells the story of two Jewish cousins, one a refugee from Hitler’s Europe, in New York in the 1940s, and their creation of a comic book hero bent on foiling the Nazis. “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” published in 2007, posited an alternative reality in which Israel was never founded, and a stop-gap Jewish homeland, Yiddish-speaking Federal District of Sitka, located in Alaska, was established instead. Chabon’s interest in Judaism and Jewish culture is evident in several of his other works, as well.
And “Telegraph Avenue” has a Jewish soul, too, that at first seems to go no deeper than a handful of Yiddish phrases falling easily off the tongues of characters of every ethnicity, including a few nominal Jews. Yet, reading this novel, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it also takes place in a kind of alternative reality, in which the historic coalition between Jews and blacks fighting together for civil rights and social justice had never been strained and still endures. It’s a dream worth imagining, and Chabon does so with skill, charm, and no small amount of virtuosic writing.
The common element that brings out the universal humanity of Chabon’s diverse cast of characters — and ultimately, despite a multitude of plot complications, brings them together — is music in general and jazz, soul, Motown, gospel, classic rock and bluesy oldies in particular. Indeed, Chabon conjures a winning soundtrack from the eclectic bins of Brokeland Records, the used vinyl record store located on the centrally located but rundown block of Telegraph Avenue where most of the action takes place. (In a cute trick that reflects his characters’ fanatical music fixation, Chabon lovingly catalogues in parentheses the album title, record company, and date of production whenever even the most obscure music track is mentioned or goes through a character’s mind. That alone will make the book a must for any true aficionado of jazz or vinyl.)
Brokeland acts as more than a store; it’s the neighborhood’s unofficial headquarters, a place where a multicultural group of politicos, businessmen and jazz lovers gather to gossip, reminisce, and even occasionally buy a record. When one of its long-time regulars dies, it even doubles as a funeral chapel, becoming a non-denominational, all accepting “Church of Vinyl.”
Brokeland’s co-owners are Archy Stallings, easy-going and black, and Nat Jaffe, a stereotypically uptight Jew, and it’s their divergent temperaments, not their different skin tones, that periodically strains their friendship. Their wives are also business partners — they share a midwifery practice — with dispositions that may make them compatible with each other, but are the polar opposites of their respective spouses. Aviva Roth-Jafee (white and, given her name, presumably Jewish) is so practical-minded, level-headed and rational, it can be hard to fathom what drew her to the neurotic Nat, until you glimpse the tenderness they share for their teen-aged son, Julie. Similarly, Gwen Shanks (who hails from a distinguished African-American family) is so decisive and determined, you’re not surprised when she kicks the unambitious, casually unfaithful Archy out of the house, just days before their first child’s due date.
And that’s even before all these partnerships, both personal and business, begin to seriously unravel. First, Gibson Goode, a former NFL quarterback turned entrepreneur who has become one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the country, announces the planned opening, just blocks from Brokeland, of a music mega-store guaranteed to crush the already financially shaky independent store. Then Aviva and Gwen preside at a difficult, medically complicated home birth that leads to a potential lawsuit against the midwives, even though baby and mother receive the care they require and come through fine. Add to that the sudden appearance in Archy’s life of the illegitimate teenaged son whose existence he had conveniently ignored until then — and the equally unexpected reappearance of Archy’s estranged father, a washed-up one-time Blaxploitation movie star who has instigated a blackmail plot having to do with Black Panther violence from the 1970s — and there seems to be a set-up for a conflagration of major proportions between genders and generations, races and religions.
The plot may fizzle on the awkward machinations that shift the story from imminent disaster to reconciliation, but give Chabon credit for the courage of his ideals — and his idealism. Brokeland is hardly broken; it’s a village of sorts where even befuddled men like Archy and Nat can and do learn to step up to the plate of fatherhood to raise their children alongside unapologetically strong women like Aviva and Gwen.
Sure, a strain of nostalgia runs throughout the novel — it is about vinyl records and music from eras past, after all — but the optimistic spin of a message those vintage recordings yield is not sappy. Rather than yield to cynicism, Chabon has his characters do their best to stretch beyond their imperfections and mold a world, or at least one small neighborhood, where everyone really can find a way to — yes — get along. That place is not Camelot. It’s Telegraph Avenue, and it’s worth a visit.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.