Literary stroll down ‘Telegraph Avenue’

| September 11, 2012
Local flavor: Michael Chabon’s new book is a vivid exploration of modern times set in the East Bay.
Local flavor: Michael Chabon’s new book is a vivid exploration of modern times set in the East Bay.
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Best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon has a loyal following, especially in the Bay Area. Local fans are in for a treat: “Telegraph Avenue,” his new novel, covers turf so familiar that some readers may feel they’ve met these characters in real life.

Chabon is a master at writing beautifully crafted sentences and has an extraordinary ear for dialogue. Readers who are passionate about music will relish references to jazz classics and the conversations among collectors. Even the book cover is designed to resemble a 1970s record.  

“Music is one of the most important things in my life,” says Chabon, who lives in Berkeley and has visited every used record store in the East Bay. “I had never really written about it.”

“Telegraph Avenue” is a gutsy novel that takes on race, class, gender and politics. It’s set in 2004 in the borderlands of Oakland and Berkeley. The plot revolves around Archie Stallings and Nat Jaffe, co-owners of a used vinyl shop called Brokeland Records, and their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, who share a midwife practice.  

Trouble arrives in the form of Gibson Goode, a charismatic ex-football star and the fifth-richest black man in America. He wants to open one of his Dogpile megastores, threatening Brokelands’ survival. A complicated birth puts Gwen and Aviva’s skills under scrutiny.

As Archie and Gwen await the birth of their child, Archie’s unacknowledged teenage son arrives on the scene and strikes up a friendship with Nat and Aviva’s son. Archie’s father, a struggling former Blaxploitation film star, is also part of the story, as well as a parrot named Fifty-Eight. A young senator named Obama makes a brief appearance.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on.

The character of Gwen is particularly well-written, and Chabon has done an excellent job of describing the challenges of being pregnant. If you’ve ever had a baby and a birth plan, you’ll want to share this novel with your book group.

Locals will enjoy the period details, from Krishna Copy Center to Neldam’s Bakery. As part of the book’s publicity campaign, Diesel Books has been temporarily transformed into Brokeland Records, selling vintage books and records, and will remain so until Friday.

The first 200 people who pre-purchase a copy of the novel from Diesel Books will be invited to party at the store featuring Chabon at 7 p.m. Wednesday; the event benefits 826 Valencia, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching writing to youngsters. Chabon also appears today in conversation with Adam Savage in a City Arts & Lectures presentation.  

Chabon spent more than five years writing “Telegraph Avenue.” He works hard on getting the details right, he says, but in the end, it’s fiction.

“The truth that you imply has to be skillfully interwoven with stuff you’ve invented,” he says.

What he wants most of all is for readers to enjoy the book.

“First, second and third place go to pleasure,” he says. “Everything else after that is gravy.”

IF YOU GO

Michael Chabon

Presented by City Arts & Lectures

When: 7:30 p.m. today

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

Tickets: $22 to $27Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.cityboxoffice.com

Brokeland Records

Where: Diesel Books, 5433 College Ave., Oakland

When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. today through Friday

Contact: (510) 653-9965, http://dieselisbrokeland.com

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