Brokeland Records, the fictional Oakland shop where much of Michael Chabon’s latest novel takes place, is a vinyl-geek paradise. Its owners — African-American Oakland lifer Archy Stallings and white Berkeley denizen Nat Jaffe — are fetishistic collectors of old jazz and soul sides, and their well-worn store is a community institution where locals hang out all day, listening to Donald Byrd records and chatting about not much in particular. The only problem? Brokeland is slowly going bust, and a soon-to-be-built retail megaplex is threatening to take it down for good. Those might seem like low stakes for a 465-page novel by an acclaimed literary writer, but Telegraph Avenue, which is set in the summer of 2004, spins that minor drama into a broad, entertaining portrait of two complex families and the distinctive communities — Oakland and Berkeley — that are linked by the thoroughfare of the title.
This is not a modest undertaking. Chabon, who lives in Berkeley near the Oakland border, lays out a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Archy’s and Nat’s wives, who run a midwife practice together, the Brokeland partners’ teenage sons, who are friends (and occasionally more), Archy’s blaxploitation-era movie-star father and the dad’s gun-moll girlfriend, and other imagined Oakland locals such as jazz-organ veteran Cochise Jones, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Gibson ”G Bad” Goode, and 90-year-old kung fu master Irene Jew. Race, politics, infidelity, community, nostalgia, regret, obstetrics, leisure suits, and luxury dirigibles figure prominently in the story, as does Quentin Tarantino, whose name and influence crop up perhaps a bit too often. There’s also a gimmicky 12-page (yes, 12-page) sentence and, for some reason, an extended cameo by Barack Obama.
All of this might sound kind of cringeworthy, and it can be somewhat jarring when Chabon offers up dialogue like this: ”Dude and me, we had our misunderstandings, know what I’m saying? Water has for sure flowed under the motherf—ing bridge.” But he writes with such warmth and humor and sheer enthusiasm — for his characters, for the rhythms and atmosphere of Oakland, for geek culture, for the mysterious power of music, which he captures with uncommon descriptive virtuosity — that by the end it’s hard to resist this charmingly earnest book. B+