TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon (Harper Collins), 465 pages, $31.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Michael Chabon's Birkenstocks are showing in his latest novel, a multi-generational epic about a used record store in the racially charged zone between Berkeley and Oakland in the early noughties.
Nat, who is Jewish, and Archy, who's black, are childhood friends in their 40s. They run Brokeland, a temple to vinyl eclecticism, while their wives, Aviva and Gwen, run a home-birthing business.
Their problems are many. Brokeland is threatened with extinction by a mega-chain run by a local black sports celebrity. Aviva and Gwen are constantly skirting the censure of the medical establishment. Their teenage children, while up to their ears in pop culture, tumble headlong into issues related to race and sexual identity.
Most of the problems are the leisure-suit-wearing Archy's. He has to fend off his drug-addled father, a kung-fu blaxploitation star in long decline, the sudden return of an illegitimate teenage son and pressures from the local black community to sell out his partner. The aftermath of an ancient beef in the Black Panthers, long simmering from the 60s, underscores the tension.
As always in a Chabon novel, roots run so tangled and deep, it takes 465 pages to expose them. In doing so, he digs up the radical racial and cultural political history of NorCal's psychedelic melting pot.
Chabon slathers on the prose in gooey Proustian descriptions that are weirdly pleasurable even as they threaten to collapse under their own weight. Planting his characters deep in Berzerkeley's rich funk, he can pack soul jazz, Mr. Natural, Shaft and Marcus Aurelius references into a single mind-melting paragraph.
Connoisseurs will roll around in this narrative like cats in catnip. Newcomers are advised to be patient; the rewards are uneven but rich.
Chabon reads alongside Junot Díaz on Friday (October 19).