Telegraph Avenue

A Novel

By Michael Chabon

Harper. 480 pp. $27.99

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Reviewed by Bob Hoover


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 that Michael Chabon examines, analyzes, and celebrates 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. 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 Chabon - who remembers every TV show, movie, album, comic book, trading card, or car model from his childhood (excuse the excess; 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, 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."

Chabon turns loose this torrent of information from his packed garage of pop culture on the first page of the novel as it unfolds in the shabby quarters of Brokeland Records on the avenue 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; they enjoy the friendly buzz of conversation from the passersby who are more interested in shooting the breeze than buying a Melvin Sparks solo album.

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, now "the 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 awful. Michael Chabon is a compassionate creator of decent, ordinary people who are saved by the sweetness and kindness he fills them with. 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.

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 is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.