The title of Michael Chabon’s pungent new novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” refers, of course, to the famous Telegraph Avenue that bridges Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., that frisky, clamorous thoroughfare so identified, since the 1960s, with the counterculture and community life.
The central plot of this novel is highly reminiscent of Nora Ephron’s 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail”: a small, independent store, which has been a neighborhood institution, is threatened by the arrival of a megastore that offers all the temptations of modern life. In this case, a vinyl record shop called Brokeland Records, owned by two squabbling partners named Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, plays the role of David to a Goliath, represented by a proposed mall that would have a 10-screen multiplex, a food court, gaming arcade and a three-story media store. The complex is the brainchild of a former football star turned mogul named Gibson Goode, known as G Bad.
Using this mise en scene as the spine of his plot, Chabon has constructed an amazingly rich, emotionally detailed story that addresses his perennial themes — about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and the consolations of art — while reaching outward to explore the relationship between time past and time present, the weight (or lightness, as the case may be) of history, and the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.
Although the novel gets off to a somewhat sluggish start, it soon achieves escape velocity, demonstrating that Chabon can write about just about anything — be it the joys of music on vinyl, the history of kung fu movies, the pain of giving birth, the antics of an African gray parrot or the artistry of Quentin Tarantino. And write about it not as an author regurgitating copious amounts of research, but with a real, lived-in sense of empathy and passion.
He draws an extraordinarily tactile, Kodachrome-crisp picture of the Bay Area world that his characters inhabit — a world perched somewhere between the hipster concerns of old-school Berkeley and the more down-to-earth worries of middle- and lower class Oakland — while conjuring the music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that Archy and Nat love so much and that has given them their vocation. The result is a novel with the grooviest soundtrack since “High Fidelity”: the jazz, funk, soul, R&B and rock ’n’ roll that thumps through this volume is a Proustian madeleine for the characters in this book, linking their present lives to their adolescent passions, and the Berkeley of 2004 to the Oakland of the ’70s, when Huey Newton and the Black Panthers held sway.