How hip-hop inspired Michael Chabon's latest work, 'Telegraph Avenue'

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon's latest novel, "Telegraph Avenue," is a sprawling, often dense, yet beautifully written story about friendship, fractured families and the quest for personal authenticity in a community of intentional and accidental misfits.

It is the story of Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, the multiracial owners of the vinyl records emporium Brokeland and their wives Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, two politically and socially active midwives.

As longtime store owners fighting against the wave of gentrification sweeping the Berkeley/Oakland area of Northern California, Archy and Nat are outraged by ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode's plans to build a music megastore in the area that will crush their decades-long business.

Because Goode (local shout-out: he was a Pittsburgh Steelers star) is "the fifth-richest black man in America," he has the means to reshape the struggling community's economic future into his own image whether it wants to be reshaped or not. The frustrating thing about it is that his intentions are good -- perhaps even noble in a way.

Meanwhile, Archy's teenage son Titus Joyner and the Jaffes' 15-year-old son, Julius, enter into a love affair that has the potential to make things awkward for everyone. There are several other subplots as well, giving "Telegraph Avenue" the shape of an ambitious but unruly 19th-century English or Russian novel. Big ideas and high-minded writing coexist with coarse jokes and clever homage. A reader has to stay alert or risk being swept away at any moment.

Despite its occasional excesses, "Telegraph Avenue" is a perfect book for our risk-averse times. It has more than its fair share of nuance and audacity, especially in the way it deals with race, homosexuality and capitalism. It is hilarious, nerdy and self-absorbed in a good way.

"I was listening to a lot of music while I was writing," Mr. Chabon said in a recent interview with the Post-Gazette. "I was listening to tons of hip-hop. So I got caught up in the idea of flow and how language operates in hip-hop. I've been listening to this music since it started, but never thought of these artists as writers who had any influence on my writing."

Mr. Chabon, a 1984 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, said that he now sees how deeply influenced he is by writers who don't necessarily put their words or thoughts between book covers.

Because of "Telegraph Avenue's" eccentricities, including a 12-page-long sentence that somehow manages to advance the narrative instead of obscure it, it is hard to believe that the novel began its journey into the modern literary canon as a failed television pilot.

"I pitched an early version featuring the four core characters," he said without going into details about the network or studio that rejected it. It occurred to him a few years later to reshape the script as a novel.

"I finally figured out how to approach it," Mr. Chabon said of his several false starts. "Even after it was rejected as a television [pilot], I never stopped researching it or thinking about it. I was always picking up new material for it."

Mr. Chabon will read excerpts from and discuss "Telegraph Avenue" tonight at 6 at Barnes & Noble at the Waterfront, 100 West Bridge St., Homestead.

The event is free and open to the public. Mr. Chabon will sign copies of the book, just released in paperback. For more info: 412-462-5743.


Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631.


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