Chabon takes Berkeley for a spin

"Telegraph Avenue": by Michael Chabon; Harper ($27.99)

Michael Chabon's new novel is called "Telegraph Avenue," a title that might conjure images of love beads and panhandlers.

Or perhaps a whiff of the '60s free-speech movement that flowered at Cal Berkeley, the campus of which abuts the famous boulevard's southernmost point. But that would be a different book. "Telegraph Avenue" may go down as the great Bay Area novel, but it's not a hippie's tale.

The action takes place by the Berkeley-Oakland border, where Archie Stallings and Nat Jaffe, old friends who bicker like old lovers, run a record store in danger of extinction and navigate family crises they're ill-equipped to handle.

In an interview at Book Expo America in June, Chabon, who was raised in Maryland and Pennsylvania but has lived in Berkeley since 1997, recalled the story's genesis in an Oakland record store.

"I walked in there one day, and there was a black dude at the counter and a white guy in the back," he says. "They were talking and teasing each other and talking to the customers. And I just had this idea."

The idea, however, wasn't for a book. He first pitched "Telegraph Avenue" as a television pilot for TNT. It didn't get picked up, but the novel that rose from the ashes has a very visual feel.

Chabon introduces a dense tapestry of characters — ambitious hustlers, washed-up blaxploitation stars, confused kids — in a manner that suggests long-form TV. The novel's universe is vast but breezy, peppered with pop culture references that tie into themes of intergenerational and racial reconciliation.

In "Telegraph Avenue," we're told of a minor character with a "mustached face made out of orange rocks seamed together like the Thing in the Fantastic Four."

The vinyl-obsessed protagonists constantly riff on the soul jazz artists whose grooves lace countless hip-hop cuts. The two adolescent characters meet in a class called "Sampling as Revenge: Source and Allusion in Kill Bill."

In its own way "Telegraph Avenue" speaks directly to the literary world's biggest worry: the rise of massive chain and online outlets and the decline of independent bookstores (not to mention Borders).

Archie and Nat's Brokeland Records is a neighborhood gathering spot, but that doesn't mean it can survive the Dogpile Thang, a hipster music chain moving in across the street.

There's nothing preachy about "Telegraph Avenue," no easy, treacle-laden elegy for simpler times. Chabon is too fine a craftsman for that. He clearly likes his adopted hometown, its sense of tradition and diversity, and its stubborn efforts to hold out against gentrification.

Telegraph Avenue captures something essential about a place in flux, essentially unknowable to the non-native but still susceptible to change.

"The pace of gentrification has proceeded pretty slowly," Chabon says. "Some great places aren't there anymore. They're gone. They've passed away. But they've been replaced by other versions of the same things, as opposed to, say, another Starbucks.

"Although we do have those, too."

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