By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 480 pages, $27.99
It’s like Anton Chekhov said about a pistol appearing in the first act: If a hugely pregnant woman appears in the opening pages, you just know the water will break before you reach the end. That inevitability forms the through-line or engine, the great humming machine that drives Michael Chabon’s new book, “Telegraph Avenue.” The cover line defines it as “a novel,” but a more accurate subhead might call it, “The crazy stuff a chick gets into during her third trimester.”
Set in the summer of 2004, the book tracks various crises unfolding in the lives of two couples: the Jaffes, who are that shade of white known as Jewish, and the Stallings, who are that shade of dark known as funky. More than friends, these couples, who, in their dealings, stand for the tortured, rivalrous relationship between Jews and blacks, are associates, partners. Aviva Roth-Jaffe is in the midwife or “baby-catching” business with Gwen Shanks (Stallings). Gwen once imagined helping the poor single mothers of Oakland, Calif., but instead she has found herself servicing would-be earth mothers of the hippy set in Berkeley.
Meanwhile, the used record store co-owned by Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings is failing, another sad victim of the drive to turn everything flesh and blood into virtual, cloud-dwelling approximations. The store, built in the ruins of a barbershop on Telegraph Avenue, is called Brokeland, named for a not-quite-neighborhood, a borderland — “the ragged fault where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted.” The name of the shop suggests the state of the world and the mentality of its most sensitive inhabitants. “His broken old car, his broke barbershop full of old broken records, and the broken-down two-tone double town of Brokeland: That was the inventory of [Nat’s] life.”
Since this is a book concerned with music and with collecting and cataloging the names of old singers, labels and songs, two particular songs kept coming to mind: Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” (“Broken bottles, broken plates / broken switches, broken gates / Broken dishes, broken parts / Streets are filled with broken hearts”) and Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”)
In this book, Chabon’s characters perform in the manner of kabbalists determined to gather the pieces of the world scattered in the disaster that launched time: “… we are living in the aftermath. All’s we got is a lot of broken pieces. And you been picking those pieces up, and dusting them off, and keeping them nice and clean….” Those words are spoken by Gibson Goode, Chabon’s version of a Bond villain. A National Football League quarterback-turned-mogul, Goode, who floats above Oakland in a Zeppelin, plans to open a megastore that will finally end Brokeland.
Of course, more than a store is at stake: Brokeland is a way of life, a place to hang out, pontificate, theorize, listen — to yourself, to each other, but mostly to music. “… Nat Jaffe and our kind of people, we already got a church,” Archy tells Goode. “… And that church is the church of Vinyl.” This makes the protagonists less merchants than ministers, clerics at the end of days, exhausted in the way of a Graham Greene priest in a nation run by Communists.