Telegraph Avenue, which comes out Sept. 11, is about two men of different races running a record store on the street that connects Berkeley and Oakland — and their wives, partners in a midwifery business. It’s also about Quentin Tarantino, gentrification, and the uncertain fate of America’s integrationist experiment. Chabon couldn’t help but include a very on-topic cameo — the future President Obama, in 2004, comforting one of the novel’s central characters, Gwen, in the midst of the toughest of pregnancies (the kind where your husband’s just been caught cheating, you’ve been told you’re worthless as a midwife by an insufferable yuppie doctor, and a musical genius you love has just up and died).
Just before his hostess for the evening, who held the patent on a gene that coded for a protein to prevent the rejection of a transplanted kidney, directed everyone to gather under the carved and stenciled fir beams of her living room, and sent the young woman from the campaign out to tell the band to knock it off for ten minutes so that the state senator, Obama of Illinois, could address his fellow guests, each of whom had contributed at least one thousand dollars to attend this event, an address in which he would attempt by measured words and a calm demeanor to reassure them (vainly and mistakenly, as it would turn out) that their candidate for the presidency of the United States would not go down to inglorious defeat in November, Obama stopped in the doorway that opened onto the flagstone patio to listen for a minute to the hired band. They were cooking their way with evident seriousness of intent through an instrumental cover of “Higher Ground.”
“Those guys are pretty funky,” he observed, directing his remark to a short, extraordinarily pregnant woman in a man’s bowling shirt who stood beyond the open patio doors, dark, pretty, her hair worn in a fetching artful anemone of baby dreadlocks. The fingers of her right hand flicked shadow-bass notes on her belly. At his remark, the pregnant woman nodded without turning to look at him—there was an elaborate candelabra of a potted cactus behind whose tapered thorns she appeared to be attempting, somewhat punitively, to conceal herself. Obama was running for the United States Senate that summer and had given a wonderful speech last month at the Democratic Convention in Boston. When she did turn to him, her eyes got very wide.
“Friends of yours?” he said.
It was a reasonable inference, given the fact that, in her bowling shirt, she stood out from the other women in attendance, most of them done up in cocktail attire. She was also one of a strikingly few women of color in the room. She nodded again, more stiffly, no longer playing along with the bass, stare going glassy. Feeling big, he supposed, underdressed, and trapped behind a cactus by a celebrated black man in a fancy house full of white folks. He went further out a limb.
“My man on bass?”
The pregnant woman looked sidelong at him, a droll look, and seemed to recover from her initial bout of self-consciousness. “Well, that’s the question, now,” she said with an asperity that took him aback. “Isn’t it?”
“That is quite a suit,” Obama said. “Takes a special kind of man to go around wearing a suit like that.”
“You know, he isn’t even aware of that?” the pregnant woman said. “Man doesn’t feel self-conscious, not one little bit embarrassed, walking around in that thing.” Scorn and admiration in her tone in about equal measure. “The outside of him matches perfectly with the inside. It’s like, I can’t even tell you. Not stubborn, I mean, yes, he can be stubborn as hell, stubborn and full of pride, but to walk around looking like that, I mean, a purple suit, even a pimp might have doubts about it, and saddle shoes … you have to have—”
At the sound of the word, the pregnant woman looked at him. A strange expression passed over her face, as if, he thought, she might be experiencing a contraction.
“He just had a loss,” she said.
“I gathered that, something about a man named Jones.”
“Yeah, yes, he was supposed to be here, he played the organ. It’s Cochise Jones.”
“Thank you for telling me that,” Obama said. “You know, I could hear it in his playing. Something grieving. But I didn’t know what it was.”
“Mr. Jones was his own kind of shiftless fool,” she said gently. “A musician. He made, I guess he made, all these elaborate plans for his funeral, a marching band, a Cadillac hearse.” She shook her head. “The past two weeks, when we could have been getting ready for the baby, enjoying our last time alone together? My husband chose to spend them in the garage, repairing that dusty old dinosaur of an amplifier over there. Now, with a month to go? He’s going to get caught up in all this funeral foolishness. Instead of what he should be focusing on.”
“But you know,” the senator said, “I, I understand your frustration. We’ve all heard, we all know how musicians can be. But traveling around, campaigning, at home, around the country, I have seen a lot of people, met a lot of people. The lucky ones are the people like your husband there. The ones who find work that means something to them. That they can really put their heart into, however foolish it might look to other people.”
“You’re right,” she said. “I have been wasting my life.”
“Oh, don’t be too hard on the brother, now,” he said, trying to keep his tone light.
“I don’t mean him,” she said. “I mean, I do, but I don’t. I mean what you said about work. About putting your heart and soul into something meaningful. Thank you for that.”
She shook his hand with a puzzling solemnity.
The band was silenced, the guests assembled, and Barack Obama loped into the living room, at ease and smiling. He stood against a high wall painted cinnamon brown, under a display of retablos, battered squares of scrap tin and steel on which credulous souls of Mexico had painted, with painful and touching simplicity of technique, scenes that depicted their woes and expressed in stark terms their gratitude to the Holy Mother of God or various santos and santas for the granting of relief. The state senator seemed to at least one observer to feel the weight of such wishes upon him. He paused for a couple of seconds before opening his remarks.
Adapted from Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Copyright (c) 2012 by Michael Chabon. All rights reserved. Printed by agreement with Mary Evans Inc.
This story appeared in the August 27, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.