“Telegraph Avenue,” Michael Chabon’s rich, comic new novel, is a homage to an actual place: the boulevard in Northern California where Oakland — historically an African-American city — aligns with Berkeley, whose bourgeois white inhabitants are, as one character puts it, “liable to invest all their hope of heaven in the taste of an egg laid in the backyard by a heritage-breed chicken.” The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: kung fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; and an interest in African-American characters and experience. Chabon and Tarantino make an unlikely duo; while the latter’s films tend toward gaudy eruptions of violence, Chabon bends Tarantino’s sensibility to a warmhearted novel about fatherhood in which the onstage violence consists of two graphic childbirth scenes and a 15-year-old boy whacking a chubby thug with a wooden sword. A self-help book in the style of Andrei Tarkovsky would be hardly more oxymoronic.
Yet Chabon has made a career of routing big, ambitious projects through popular genres, with superlative results — in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” he used the history and tropes of comics to render the convulsions of American life during and after World War II; the more recent “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a thought experiment, in the form of a noirish whodunit, about an alternate Jewish state. The scale of “Telegraph Avenue” is no less ambitious: Chabon sifts through the layers of Oakland’s archaeology, from the Miwok Indians, “dreaming the dream, living fat as bears, piling up their oyster shells,” and the arrival of a black middle class (thanks in part to the Pullman Company, which hired black men as porters in its sleeper cars) to the wildness of the Black Panther days and the summer of 2004, when the novel is set in a technological eddy that makes it feel 10 years earlier.
The father (and son) at the center of “Telegraph Avenue” is one Archy Stallings, a sometime bassist who is African-American and Oakland-raised. With his white best friend, Nat Jaffe, Archy owns a store called Brokeland Records, selling used vinyl on the site of a former barbershop whose old-timers and nostalgics it has inherited. Like many characters in “Telegraph Avenue,” Archy and Nat belong to “a league of solitary men united in their pursuit of the lost glories of a vanished world.” They are holdouts, unplugged and awaiting, in a state of dread, what Archy calls “the great wave of late-modern capitalism.”
Archy also dreads fatherhood. In the novel’s opening pages, Gwen, his pregnant wife, catches Archy cheating on her, setting in motion one of several parenting plots that converge around Archy like a swarm of angry wasps: his own feckless, absentee father, Luther Stallings, a onetime blaxploitation star finally clean after years of drug abuse, arrives in town scheming about a comeback underwritten by his blackmail of a shady local politician over their shared Panther history; Archy’s illegitimate 14-year-old son, Titus, whose existence he’s barely registered, also washes up in Oakland, and falls into a sexual relationship with Nat’s beloved gay teenage son, Julius; and Archy’s surrogate father, an elderly organ player, is crushed to death under his keyboard while trying to heft it for a political gig starring State Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. As if all of that weren’t enough, Gwen, a midwife in business with Nat’s wife, explodes at a racist doctor, causing a chain of repercussions. And Brokeland Records finds itself in the path of the encroaching empire of Gibson Goode, a former N.F.L. star who plans to break ground on a slick new mall (with a music store selling vinyl) two blocks away.
There are pathos and suspense in these tribulations, but the world of “Telegraph Avenue” is safe, symmetrical and fundamentally comic. At times the humor arises from Tarantino-esque exchanges among would-be gangsters; during a stakeout near a doughnut shop, a hoodlum muses: “It’s a longitudinal study… . Bear claw is my, what you call, control… . If the bear claw’s good, the standardize doughnuts be even better.” The most amusing passages exploit the mash-up of races and cultures in Oakland and Berkeley; on the day of the organ player’s funeral, Archy and Nat are questioned about their fulfillment of the dead man’s musical wishes (he would have wanted a “Chinese” group called the Green Street band):
“I had to go in a different direction. Hired this outfit, Bomp and Circumstance, you know them?”
“They got the set list together, they know how the Chinese do it, the hymns and whatnot.”
“But still … lesbians ain’t quite what he asked for, either.”
Much of the wit in “Telegraph Avenue” inheres in Chabon’s astonishing prose. I don’t just mean the showy bits: a 12-page-long sentence that includes the observations of an escaped parrot, or the lovely, credible scene from Obama’s point of view. I mean the offhand brilliance that happens everywhere: a woman’s sun-tanned shins “shining like bells in a horn section.” Titus’s memories, “a scatter of images caught like butterflies in the grille of his mind.” The interior of the gondola on Gibson Goode’s zeppelin: “On the spectrum of secret lairs, it fell somewhere between mad genius bent on world domination and the disco-loving scion of a minor emirate.” Or Archy, forgiven by his wife in the moment of losing his father figure: “Somewhere in the midst of the continent of shock and grief that was Archy Stallings, a minor principality rejoiced.”
Chabon has always struck me as a joyful writer — his own pleasure and curiosity are part of the reading experience. This time, his curiosity may surpass the reader’s; “Telegraph Avenue” feels over-dense, larded with digressions that hamper the acceleration of its complicated plot. When Gwen first discovers Archy’s infidelity: “ ‘It’s the indignity of it,’ she heard herself telling him, invoking a key concept of her mother’s code of morality with such stone likeness that it chilled her, spiders walked on the back of her neck, you might as well swing the camera around and show Rod Serling standing there behind a potted banana tree in an eerie cloud of cigarette smoke.”
Because a woman in mid-tirade would seem unlikely to pause and imagine herself on camera with Rod Serling, the observation is merely distracting. The same can be said of some of the novel’s abundant asides about musical recordings and theories, and its pileups of pop cultural references, as when Gwen detects in the speaking style of a white lawyer who likes to act black “the discarded materials of rap records, Grady Tate on ‘Sanford and Son,’ a touch of Martin Lawrence and then at the core, something really questionable, maybe Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on ‘The Electric Company.’ ”
It’s a testament to Archy’s magnetism, and the buoyancy of Chabon’s material, that the plot lifts off despite this extra weight. And when, in its moving final pages, the Internet is fully invoked, the arrival feels hopeful in a way that already seems nostalgic. The teenage boys continue their defunct relationship as made-up characters online, where race, gender and sexual orientation are not burdens, but choices. For Archy and Nat, online commerce offers the chance to reach vinyl-record lovers around the globe who are eager to acquire (as a vintage card seller puts it) “what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you.”
It isn’t the fetishists who find their losses restored in “Telegraph Avenue,” but the alienated fathers and sons: Archy and the father who abandoned him; Archy and the son he abandoned along with his newborn son, whose experience of fatherhood still hangs in the balance. In the end, Chabon’s novel suggests, what has the power to fill the void inside us isn’t artifacts, but paternity. In fact, it may have been Dad who was missing in the first place.