Michael Chabon's 'Telegraph Avenue': a soulful love song

The pride of Pittsburgh knocks one out of the ballpark with his sweeping novel of Bay Area denizens

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Welcome to the department of cultural studies at Chabon University. I see you've chosen "Leisure Suits: An Appreciation," "The Philosophy of 'Blaxploitation' Films" and "The Origins and Inspirations of 1970s Music" as your courses. Quite ambitious. It could be fun or leave you asking, "What the hell ...?"

The syllabus for those and the dozens of other subjects examined, analyzed and celebrated by Michael Chabon is "Telegraph Avenue," his dazzling star turn of a novel that showcases the author's writing talents like a digital TV screen above Times Square.

By Michael Chabon
Harper ($27.99).

Resembling Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente, who loved to show off his powerful throwing arm just for fun, the writer puts on a show for readers mostly because he can -- and because it must have been fun filling the pages with his encyclopedic love of pop culture.

It's not a casual hobby for Mr. Chabon, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who spent part of his teenage years here. He remembers every TV show, movie, album, comic book, trading card or car model from his youth (excuse the excess; Mr. Chabon's hyperbolic enthusiasm is habit-forming), but the very essence of his understanding of the world. Where Henry James focused on a moment of silence or a glance, Mr. Chabon interprets the sounds of a Hammond B3 on Carole King's "It's Too Late" or an old American Cinematographer magazine article on "Fitzcarraldo" to describe the texture of his characters' lives.

This torrent of information from the novelist's overflowing garage of pop culture is turned loose on the first page of "Telegraph Avenue" in the shabby quarters of Brokeland Records on the avenue that runs between Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., in 2004. Proprietors Archy Stallings (as in "Archy and Mehitabel"?) and Nat Jaffe are two middle-aged dudes with little ambition who enjoy the friendly buzz of conversation from the passers-by who are more interested in shooting the breeze than buying a Melvin Sparks solo album. The place was formerly a barbershop catering to African-Americans, a spot where conversation flowed nonstop, so the tradition continues.

Their spouses -- Gwen and Aviva -- are Berkeley's leading midwives, a mobile crew in Aviva's oil-leaking Volvo station wagon who do home deliveries. Nat and Aviva's teenage son Julie devotes his time to a vintage eight-track tape player while Archy and Gwen await their first child, well, Gwen's first. Archy's lost son from an earlier time, Titus, has just arrived in Oakland to complicate things.

And things do get complicated in the novelist's worldwide stretch of a plot with a cast of characters big enough to require a scorecard, such as:

Luther Stallings, Archy's estranged father and onetime blaxploitation film star; Gibson Goode, once star quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the country's "fifth most richest African-American"; Oakland city councilman Chad Flowers, Luther's onetime partner in crime and the city's leading mortician; Cochise Jones, master of the Hammond B3 (and its victim); as well as assorted henchmen, thugs, lawyers, weird neighbors and a 90-year-old female Kung Fu master who runs the Bruce Lee Institute of Martial Arts. Even a young Barack Obama does a cameo.

Plots and subplots emerge, intertwine and now and then, wander off to get lost among the countless pop culture references. Characters are born, die, separate, have a variety of sexual experiences, make and break deals and reach understandings at long last.

Like most novels, "Telegraph Avenue" is a journey along a bumpy road littered with pitfalls, but none too terrible. The novel marks Mr. Chabon's return to the realistic style of his earlier works such as "Wonder Boys," after his foray into such fantasies as "The Yiddish Detective's Union," yet written with his personal eclectic enthusiasm and warmth for his all-too-human characters. He cares about them, especially at the crucial moment of labor, related in all its bloody glory, or when they've done something stupid and hurtful.

Michael Chabon does love his brand of popular culture, but I think he loves humanity more and that love is the power behind this sweeping novel.


Bob Hoover: pittbookeditor@hotmail.com.


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