Michael Chabon’s new novel takes on family, gentrification, race, gender and Oakland

Michael Chabon’s new book, “Telegraph Avenue,” is a Significant Novel — think “War and Peace,” “Grapes of Wrath,” even the author’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” And this newest offering, scheduled for release on Tuesday, Sept. 11, rises to the level of that earlier book, rightly considered his best.

This novel’s heft derives from much more than its 465 pages. By focusing on the intimate story of two families and their foundering businesses, it treats larger issues of race, gender, sexuality, politics and urban gentrification with the same lyricism and deft use of language as Chabon’s previous works, but with a special added treat: It’s set in our own East Bay.

Michael Chabon photo/ulf anderson

It’s 2004, and lifelong friends Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe own a used-record store on Telegraph Avenue, on the border between what one reviewer called “gritty Oakland and tony Berkeley” (hey, ever heard of Rockridge?). They’re under fire from Dogpile, a music mega-store set to move into the neighborhood, as their wives — co-owners of a midwifery collective — face disciplinary action from a local hospital.

In between, we have a cast of characters spanning the range of East Bay life — an African-American developer known as the King of Bling, an obstreperous parrot, Piedmont hostesses, a city councilman with a dark past, hip-hop musicians, a gay tween obsessed with sci-fi, earnest neighborhood activists and, in a walk-on part, then-senatorial candidate Barack Obama.

The author spoke to j. by phone from his home in Berkeley.

J: This is a beautifully written book. It’s also a very warm book. You seem to genuinely like most of the characters. Is that because you set it in your hometown?

Michael Chabon: Well, I do have very warm feelings towards this part of the world. I’m so happy to be back whenever I return from having been somewhere else. I also think that it tends to be characteristic of my books generally that I have trouble writing any kind of a true villain. I always end up feeling a certain kind of sympathy even for a character I initially conceive of as the bad guy in a book. I think the thing about “Telegraph Avenue” is that the characters really love and care about each other, for the most part.

And that’s true of their author as well. It stirred up this feeling of affection that didn’t leave me the whole time, even when I was struggling really hard with this book and having feelings of wanting to lay it aside, I never lost that sense of affection toward the characters.

J: You did something bold, mixing in fictional characters with real places and people. That’s typical of historical novels, but you did it in a contemporary novel set in the place where you live and walk around.

MC: I was trying to create a portrait of this place and have it be accurate, have it be recognizable to people who live in this area. I thought it would give a sense of pleasurable recognition to people who live around here to see a reference, for example, to [Berkeley’s] Vik’s Chaat House.

J: This book is not a Jewish book in the way “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is. But it is still a Jewish book?

MC: When you compare any book to “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” it’s not going to be as Jewish. That was a really Jewish book. I imagine that’s the most Jewish book I’m ever going to write. There is a Jewish family in this book, but they aren’t practicing, they’re just ‘of Jewish origin.’ I think that after finishing “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” I needed a bit of a break. Maybe a lot of break.

J: The Jewish flavor of this book is very subdued.

MC: Right. It’s not an overt theme of the book, but there is a thread in the history of black popular music that is a Jewish thread — the thread of Jewish involvement both in the production and distribution of that music. There were a lot of Jewish songwriters who wrote standards that were popularized by black musicians. And you have Jewish record producers, and Jewish engineers and record label owners. The book is not about that, by any means. It’s about two guys who own a record store.

But I think Nat is conscious — both he and Archy are conscious — of the ambiguity of that role of Jews in black popular music. It’s not something they think or worry about too much, but they’re aware of it. Nat is very conscious of not wanting to seem like the appropriating white guy who wants to be black, or seem black, or take over something that was created by a black person in any way. To a fault, he’s sensitive about that.

J: Is there some of you in him?

MC: Nat is very different from me, certainly in his temperament. His most obvious characteristic is that high-strung, manic temperament, which is not like me at all.

J: The black-Jewish friendships central to the book are not that common in the East Bay, yet you present them as completely unremarkable.

MC: They may not be common, but I wouldn’t say they’re rare either. Especially in the world of music, and the fact that they’re in a band together, I think it becomes more common in that context. In a way that’s related to what I was talking about before — there have been a few historical bases for a partnership between a black man and a Jewish man over the past hundred years. Some of those contexts are very well known, like the civil rights movement. Some of that, sadly, has very much fallen away in the intervening decades.

But I think in the world of music, the sheer passion and love for soul music, for jazz, for hip-hop, has continued to be a very sound basis for a friendship between a black man and a Jewish man. To me, it just felt very natural.

J: I have to ask about the Barack Obama scene — was that based on the fundraiser you and your wife [novelist Ayelet Waldman], held for his 2008 presidential campaign?

MC: Which he never appeared at, by the way! The only fundraiser I ever attended where he was a guest was a massive thing in a big hotel ballroom in San Francisco, at the beginning of the 2008 campaign. But I knew something like that was possible, particularly before he was elected to the Senate in August of 2004. It wasn’t something I had experienced personally, but it wasn’t hard for me to imagine, having attended lots of other hoity-toity fundraisers in the Berkeley Hills over the years for other candidates.

J: Why did you wait so long to write about where you live? 

MC: I started out doing this as a TV show — that was the initial genesis for the project. That was back in 1999, and I’d only lived here for two years. So it’s not that I waited so long, it’s that the process was very slow in my own mind, going from a failed proposal for a TV series to trying to do it over again, this time in the form of a novel. Once I started to do that, it took about five years. Which is about as long as it takes me to do anything.

J: It would have been difficult to include the zeppelin scene in a TV series. 

MC: That’s true. That’s definitely one of the advantages of writing fiction — you don’t have to worry about your budget.


‘Telegraph Avenue’ author to speak

Michael Chabon will give several Bay Area book talks:

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11 as part of City Arts & Lectures, Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

7 p.m. Sept. 12 at Diesel Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland

7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera

7 p.m. Oct. 24 at Copperfield’s Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma

7 p.m. Oct. 25 at Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

7 p.m. Oct. 26 at Rakestraw Books, 522 Hartz Ave., Danville

For details:

“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon (465 pages, Harper, $27.99)

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].