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“[Nat] was tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions,” Chabon writes. “Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”
It’s hard to summarize the plot of this book, as it’s one of those rare gems that seem to include an entire world. Its back-story is everything that ever happened to you, all those afternoons watching reruns on TV, the terrible need you felt to understand and be cool, the compromises you made after college. It features a faded Blaxploitation star (Luther Stallings, Archy’s father), along with his smokin’ sidekick, Valetta Moore (tag line: “Stay fly”); ditto Huey Newton and the Panthers, Oakland before the riots, the putrid uniforms of the A’s, a lost child, an inquest, a parrot that talks, a jazzed up funeral and a forgotten crime, the secret of which may hold the key to everything. Even Barack Obama turns up at a party, where he listens to Archy and Nat play in a band.
In blessing Archy, Obama, whose mixed parentage suggests an ideal, gives the book its coda. “… traveling around, campaigning, at home, around the country, I have seen a lot of people, met a lot of people,” the future president tells Gwen. “The lucky ones are the people like your husband there. The ones who find work that means something to them. That they can really put their heart into, however foolish it might look to other people.”
Of course, the book is more than its plot. The real subject is language, style, which is where Chabon proves equal to any of the old vinyl masters. The clearest sense of the writer — you catch his image as, looking at a photo, you might spot the photographer reflected in a store window — comes via metaphors. These offer hints of the artist’s obsessions, particularly science fiction and superheroes, suggesting that the struggle at the center of Telegraph Avenue — society’s demand that a person grow up and get real — echoes a struggle of Chabon’s own. In these pages, Chabon writes of a man, “steeled by a lifetime of training in the arts of repression, like Spock battling the septenary mating madness of the pon farr,” and condemns a character for “ignoring his Spidey sense.” When Gwen drops to the ground, “Archy sank with her, the Man of Steel dragged along by the plummeting train.” (This for a lagniappe: “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.”)
The book is forever reaching back to the days of childhood comics, 45s, golden afternoons when America seemed to groove to one sound. “… hearing Jimi Hendrix, hearing Sly Stone. Not just white boys playing black music, like always, or even black dudes playing in a white style, but really, like, this moment, this one moment, lasted four, five years, when the styles and the players were mixing it all up.”
But in the end, time breaks everything, and you learn to live without or you suffer — that’s the sad truth that lingers on every page of this melancholy epic. “The little boy had wandered away from his mother, tacking across the grass toward the play structure,” Chabon writes. “His mother watched him go, proud, tickled, unaware that every time they toddled away from you, they came back a little different, ten seconds older and nearer to the day when they left you for good.”
Rich Cohen is the author of “The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King.”