Of all Barack Obama’s recent appearances — and, what with the upcoming election, they are legion — possibly the most startling is the one he makes 158 pages into Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The year is 2004. Obama is still just a state senator, fresh from rhetorically reuniting, to the thrill of at least half the nation, the red states and blue states and gay states and NRA states of the United States of America, at the event that could not yet be hashtagged #DNC04. Now he is at a fund-raiser in Berkeley, California, with a few minutes to spare before he must give another stirring speech on behalf of a doomed candidate. And what is he doing with that time? Well, of course. He is hanging out with Gwen Shanks, Archy Stallings, and Nat Jaffe, the protagonists of Chabon’s new novel.
You cannot tell from a man’s demeanor how much chutzpah he may have. When I first show up at Chabon’s summer home in Maine, he is in the kitchen, barefoot, making fior di latte ice cream: milk-flavored, basically, vanilla without the vanilla. All four of his children are upstairs, washing off after a swim in the pond out back, which leaves a wet and enthusiastic Labradoodle to greet me at the door and Chabon’s wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, to let me in. Within three minutes, she has commented on my hair, invited me to stay for dinner, and pointed out that the ice-cream–maker was a gift from her to Chabon — an entirely self-serving one, she adds, “like a man giving his wife lingerie.” So far, the chutzpah in the house is all hers.
But now Chabon and I are on a couch in the living room, with Telegraph Avenue, the real metric of his audacity, sitting on a coffee table between us. It is his thirteenth book, a run that began with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a critically acclaimed best seller published in 1988, when Chabon was just 25. A dozen years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a shining Chrysler Building of a novel about a pair of Jewish cousins who invent a superhero, the Escapist, during the dark days of Fascism and the golden age of comics. Partway through that book, one of the cousins attends a party and saves the life of the very strange guest of honor, who is asphyxiating in a diving helmet: Salvador Dalí. It is more surreal than the Obama cameo, but only technically speaking.
Chabon pleads sanity: “I didn’t do it without at least stopping for a moment and thinking: Really?” But, he says, starting to snap his fingers in rapid succession, “there’s just these cascading decisions that you’re making quick, quick, quick.” In Telegraph Avenue, Archy and Nat co-own a record store and play together in a band. Chabon wanted to take readers to one of their gigs, and he figured they might plausibly play a fund-raiser. Since the book is set in 2004, it would probably be a Kerry event. And if it were a Kerry event, then — oh. “As soon as I thought of it, it felt right,” Chabon says. “I didn’t examine it or wonder why. I just knew.”
At first read, the Obama cameo just seems like a daredevil writer strutting his stuff, a bit of literary Yes He Can. An artful mimic, Chabon has the senator step away from the crowd and regard the band appreciatively: “They were cooking their way with evident seriousness of intent through an instrumental cover of ‘Higher Ground.’” That’s the Stevie Wonder classic: People keep on learnin’ / Soldiers keep on warrin’ / World keep on turnin’. Obama listens, “tapping his foot, bobbing his close-cropped head. ‘Those guys are pretty funky,’ he observed.”
Only slowly do we realize what’s really going on here. One of “those guys” is Nat: moody, Jewish, something of a drama queen, a white man raised in the South by a black stepmother. The other is Archy: a black guy, big of heart, impulsive down below, abandoned by his father in early childhood. Telegraph Avenue is about these two men, their families, and the record store they own, which is to say that it’s about black-white relations in America, the fate of small businesses, and the failure of fathers to stick around and raise their sons. No wonder the Obama appearance feels so right.
But there is another, deeper reason the cameo belongs in this book. In the 2004 speech that made Obama famous, he asked America a question: “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?” As a novelist, Michael Chabon is preoccupied with fallibility and weakness and, in the broadest sense, infidelity — our chronic failure to keep faith with each other and ourselves. Over and over, his books tell the story of the huge bang, short half-life, and inexorable decay of our dreams. And yet they are more buoyant, more in love with life, than just about anything else in contemporary American literature: escape artists in themselves, utterly unchainable by cynicism or despair. Chabon knows that whatever you are building is about to fall apart, but he will hand you the glue gun and say “Go for it.” Build and wreck and rebuild and re-wreck: That’s life, in the long view, and Chabon is a very patient man. Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground.
This is Chabon’s answer, in literary form, to Obama’s question to America. He does not have a solution to the problem of human fucked-up-ness. He does not believe that progress is inevitable, or that injustice can be ignored, or that we can outsource our issues to a higher power. He just has the very rare ability to sustain a non-naïve faith in goodness: vanilla without the vanilla. That requires a different kind of audacity, and more of it, than putting the president of the United States in the middle of your book. What Chabon has, to kinda quote that president, is the chutzpah of hope.
Chabon was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up, from the age of 6, in Columbia, Maryland. Columbia was a planned community, built to comply with a kind of ideological zoning code: It was to be integrated, egalitarian, ecumenical — in his words, “a very sixties utopian experiment.” The Chabons moved in two years after it opened, and Michael grew up with many black friends and peers and teachers. “I was very invested in the stated ideals of that place,” he says, “and, during those first ten years, it really managed to pretty well live up to what it wanted to accomplish.”
Over time, though, and to Chabon’s acute disappointment, Columbia capitulated to the status quo. It was not a spectacular failure, he says, “in the way that a lot of utopias are, where there’s a sexual-harassment lawsuit or they end up eating each other. Columbia is still there, people live there very happily. But in terms of its original vision, that faded.” Go back these days, he says, and you’ll find “a typical edge city.”
Figuratively speaking, Chabon does go back to Columbia, again and again. “I seem, almost from the beginning, to be wrestling with the inevitability of failure, either as it’s played out through one person’s personal ambition or as it plays out through the effort to create a kind of utopia, the way the Columbia experience was for me.” Failure, I point out, seems like an odd obsession for such a successful writer. (When I asked Chabon if his parents had supported his career choice, he joked that they never had time to get to the “maybe you should think about law school” stage.) But he counters with, basically, the law of gravity: “Someone who has succeeded is as likely if not more likely to be stalked by the specter of failure, because experience and history shows that it can all be taken away from you in a blink of an eye.”
Chabon’s novels show this as well. His characters dream massive, America-size dreams: of a million-dollar comic-book empire, an alternate homeland for Jews, a ship to save children from the Nazis. Or, as in his new book, they simply dream America’s dream about itself: of a place where business is good, marriages hold, and citizens of all races live together in peace. And then the industry tanks, the mandate expires, the boat sinks, the store folds, the community changes, the marriage ends — or, more often, and more poignantly, the dream, whatever it was, just drifts along, slower and lower, losing air, ruptured against the mineral roughness of reality.
Like Columbia’s failure, those faced by Chabon’s characters are, for the most part, unspectacular. No cults, no cannibalism, not even any genuine bad guys. Chabon can’t write bad guys. He can’t even write dislikable guys. “I tried!” he says, laughing. “I tried to make a bastard. I couldn’t keep it up.” What stops him is a surfeit of empathy. “I can go to any part of this country and spend three hours driving around in a car with someone who’s politically completely opposite to me, whose background is nothing like mine, we probably would disagree on every possible subject.” And yet, he says, “given enough time, I can work my way into a kind of feeling of affection for that person. Most people seem to have things about them that are interesting or admirable or worthy.”
Ultimately, Chabon doesn’t need bad guys, because he is not terribly interested in malign intent. He’s interested in the well-meaning among us, which is most of us, and in the havoc we manage to wreak anyway. Regardless of where his novels take place, their metaphysical setting is always the same, that notorious chasm between intention and action. He lowers his characters down into it, winds the engines of their dreams, and waits for the inevitable moment when — as Saul Bellow once said to Philip Roth — the Good Intentions Paving Company fucks up again.
The closest Chabon has come to finding a new Columbia occurred by chance, sometime in the late nineties, when he wandered into a record store near Telegraph Avenue. That street runs south from hippie-bourgie Berkeley, where Chabon and his family live when they’re not in Maine, down to the historically blacker and more blighted Oakland. The store seemed like a sociocultural midpoint: One of the guys behind the counter was black and the other was white, and neither seemed to care that their putative customers, also a mix of black and white, were just hanging around kibitzing. “It made me so happy and just clicked for me in some way,” Chabon said. “There are these communities of choice, and maybe it doesn’t work on a big scale of a city of a hundred thousand people, which was the goal of Columbia, but it seemed to be working in this little record store.”
For a long time, that memory just hung around in Chabon’s brain, a customer failing to buy anything. At one point, he used it as the basis for a TV pilot, but the show was never made. Finally, he decided to turn it into a book. “I thought it was going to be easy,” he says ruefully. “Like, ‘I already wrote this script, so all I have to do is just novelize it.’ Waldman, who has temporarily joined us in the living room and is typing away at a laptop, looks up: “Right. And I feel like I remember the words, ‘This is going to be a short little book.’ ”
It wasn’t easy, and it isn’t short. It isn’t that long, either (465 pages), but it has a Great American Novel heft to it—probably because, all caps aside, it is a great American novel. Chabon is a kind of one-man lowbrow historical-preservation society; he does fictionalized American history by way of real American art forms, the more demotic the better: kung fu flicks, blaxploitation, baseball cards. Kavalier and Clay is The United States in Comics, 1939–1954; Telegraph Avenue is The United States in Vinyl, 1969–2004. But really only the early end of that date range matters; the present, in these pages, is mostly just a handy viewing platform from which to admire the past. One of the deepest pleasures of Telegraph Avenue — wait, scratch that: one of its shallowest pleasures, but such a fun one — is how steeped it is in the cultural detritus of the seventies. Its characters wear leisure suits and say “Stay fly!” and drive cars big enough to scare the bejesus out of Jaws. If the book had a backbeat, it would be the bwaaaaa-chicka-bwaaa of early Isaac Hayes.
Music, of course, is at the heart of all of this. The store Chabon encountered in the nineties appears here as Brokeland Records, a brick-and-mortar purveyor of used vinyl, chiefly jazz funk and soul jazz. As such, it is an endangered species, and its particular Krakatoa goes by the name of Gibson Goode, a.k.a. G Bad: former pro football player, fifth-richest black man in America, and hatcher of a plan to open, elsewhere on Telegraph Avenue, a “Thang”—a big-box store masquerading as an African-American community-improvement plan, or possibly the other way around.
This is bad news for Nat and Archy, and it doesn’t help that everything else in their lives is unraveling as well. Nat is married to one Aviva Roth-Jaffe, whose status as “the Alice Waters of midwives” is imperiled by a botched birth. Together, they are raising possibly the gayest teenager in the Bay Area, and the bar for that is not low. Archy is married to Gwen Shanks, Aviva’s junior partner in the troubled midwifery practice, who is herself eight and a half months pregnant when the book begins. That makes Archy a father-to-be, but he is also, we soon learn, already a father, albeit only in the narrowest sense: 50 percent of the nature and zero percent of the nurture of 14-year-old Titus Joyner. Half-orphaned down in Texas, Titus turns up in Oakland, where he finds, befriends, and placidly accepts sexual favors from the aforementioned gayest teen, né Julius, called Julie.
There is more, to put it mildly: an unsolved murder, a possibly sentient parrot, a bespoke black zeppelin — I could go on. But, literally and otherwise, Telegraph Avenue begins and ends with Archy. He is the consummate Chabon character: an entire atlas of good intentions gone elsewhere, disastrous on paper (so to speak) yet impossible to dislike. He can cheat on his pregnant wife, spend fourteen years ignoring a prior bit of paternity, and seriously contemplate selling out his best friend, and we will nonetheless feel more tenderly toward him than toward Oliver Twist. Like Chabon on his hypothetical car ride with a stranger, we orient toward and root for the finer parts of his nature.
And it exists, that finer nature; it overcomes him sometimes with a will to goodness. When Gwen turns to Archy in a moment of need, “[he] resolved on the spot to be equal to the challenge of bearing up. He was a husband who could be true. He was Superman grabbing hold of the train engine as it plunged from the bridge.” This, too, makes him a classic Chabon character: He dreams of being a superhero when he just needs to be a man.
When Chabon was a boy, he and his father had a ritual they called Library Rounds. Once a week, they would get in the car and visit every library in the Montgomery County system, so that the elder Chabon could have his pick of the newest books. Those trips ended when Chabon was 12, with his parents’ separation and subsequent divorce. Soon after, his father moved to Pittsburgh.
Chabon is a measured speaker, and when he talks about his father, the effect increases: a 78 slowing to a 45. After the divorce, he says, his father “went from this huge presence to this huge absence like” — Chabon snaps his fingers — “that.” Their relationship, he continues, had always been “more complicated, more fraught, from the time I can remember. And the divorce was very” — later, transcribing our conversation, I watch fully seven seconds tick by onscreen — “challenging.”
Like failure in general, the failure of fathers to keep faith with their sons is one of the most pronounced features of Chabon’s imaginative world. Yet it is also the most subterranean, the place down deep where all the plates collide. Chabon calls it “a ready channel for me to push characters through and get a story going and see what comes unstuck in their psyches.” At the same time, though, it’s just a variation on a larger theme. The men in Chabon’s books all come in pairs, stuck to each other, happily or otherwise, in every possible permutation: fathers and sons, business partners, collaborators, lovers. (Most Chabon novels have at least one gay male character.) These permutations interest him mostly because, in real life, men have so few options for how to relate to one another. “It’s your buddy or your business partner or your romantic partner,” Chabon says. “Or your enemy. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got.”
Chabon envies women’s relatively greater emotional freedom, he says. And he believes that “a lot of the things men feel in terms of confusion and frustration and lack of emotional connection and fulfillment is because the accepted possibilities are so paltry.” With his books, he says, “ultimately the question I’m asking is: What does it mean for two men to love each other? Do male friends love each other? And if they do love each other, what kind of love is it? Do they say they love each other? Do they even know they love each other?”
Chabon does love men. He has written, in his nonfiction, about sleeping with one man and falling in love with another, and although he’s close to many women, he says his mental category of “best friend,” is, by default, male. (“If I were casting the part, I’d call in men.”) But he is profoundly frustrated by how men behave, or rather by how they misbehave, a problem he sums up as “dickishness.”
It is, by now, the next morning, and we’ve migrated to Chabon’s office, in a separate building just beyond the house. The building, whose design was dreamed up by Waldman, is shaped like a bow tie, with a bathroom as the knot and his-and-her offices on either side. Her side has more windows; his has more bookshelves. Chabon doesn’t need more windows, partly because he writes at night (10 p.m. until three in the morning, five or more days per week) and partly because the place is light to its bones — built, apparently, from pine and oxygen, the kind of writing space you dream of once you get too old to dream of garrets.
Chabon cheerfully endorses my envy. He and Waldman love the place so much that it’s made their office back in Berkeley slightly unpleasant by comparison. (Possibly that office is unpleasant even not by comparison. Waldman tells me that it’s covered, floor to ceiling, in multiple varieties of wallpaper. Chabon’s 11-year-old daughter confesses that she enters it as seldom as possible.) But this place in Maine — “What’s the point of living if you’re not happy in this room?” Chabon says. “I sit back and look around and everything I see makes me happy to be here.”
I sit back and look around. Chabon is apparently immune to the disheveling effects of deadlines. His books are lined up nicely, the turntable is dust-free, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the LPs underneath were alphabetized. (Chabon listens to them while he writes; “anything without lyrics,” he says, or too much crashing around.) The most striking thing about the place, other than its general covetableness, is a set of limited-edition James Bond books, face out on the central shelves, a single Bond girl on each Technicolor cover. They look like a cross between sixties pinups and the album art back in Brokeland, and they are mesmerizing. I look at them looking at me, a solid wall of sultry, and admire Chabon’s work ethic.
But back to dickishness. When I ask Chabon to define it, he starts out with “inconsiderate” and “callous.” He is revising as he speaks, though, and he settles on this: “The failure to imagine how another person is feeling. I think that’s the root of it.” That failure, he admits, is not unique to men. But, he says, “it can feel condoned as a man to be a dick, so defined.” Women are expected to be empathetic — to attend, in every sense, to the internal states of other people. Society does not place that same demand on men.
Outside the door, Mabel, the Labradoodle, lets out a whine. Chabon is indulgent: “Whaaa, what’s wrong? Trouble at the old mill? Go play, sweetie.” In a few hours, he and I will drive north to a larger town for lunch, following along behind Waldman, who’s bringing the dog and kids. At one point, she will get stuck behind a slow-moving trailer, and Chabon will pause our conversation to assure me that his wife is currently cussing up a storm. She will confirm this over lunch.
Chabon seems to excel at imagining the feelings of others, and with good reason: It is the job of the novelist. And he has tremendous faith in that act. He believes, or would like to believe, in the moral argument for fiction: “that the faculty of imagination exercised in the sphere of human relations” — he doesn’t normally sound this professorial, by the way — “increases the general level of consideration and kindness people have for each other.” But interpersonal acumen does not inevitably produce compassion, in readers or writers. Several times while talking to Chabon, I found myself thinking about Jonathan Franzen, who has a near-perfect grasp of emotional causality — how X action will make Y character feel. Yet Franzen’s prose is assertively unempathetic. He regards the world — at least, the worlds of his own making — with panoptic pitilessness. He includes everyone in his contempt, while Chabon includes everyone in his mercy.
To my mind, these are equally effective literary strategies, but they reflect strikingly different political and moral visions. I don’t mean “political” in the narrow partisan sense (most writers of literary fiction lean left), yet some of the difference in these visions is captured quite nicely by the discourse of our current campaign season. Franzen writes like a man who believes we’re all in this alone. Chabon believes, quite plainly, that we’re all in it together.
You would not be able to infer Chabon’s prose style from hanging out with him. He is meditative in his speech, affectionate with his wife and kids, attentive and slightly uncomfortable with me. Sitting across the couch, he projects (but not very far) three parts shy, five parts kind, zero parts reigning mad scientist of literary fiction.
On the page, though—well, that’s another story. Chabon writes like the seventies looked. Outside of his dialogue, which cleaves close to the speaker (Julie to Titus: “Seriously, dude, you shouldn’t say ‘faggot’ ”), you will never catch him in khakis when he could be wearing purple bell-bottoms, platform shoes, and six and a half pounds of bling. Listen to a couple of throwaway lines:
On Gibson Goode and Archy meeting at Brokeland: “G Bad and Archy pitched the tent of a handshake over themselves, struck it, folded it up, put it away.”
On Aviva spotting Nat across the store: “hunched over the counter of Brokeland, chin in hand, flying black sails from every mast like the ship in Greek mythology. Sailing as ever toward her, from yet another labyrinth, aboard the Moody Dude.”
On Titus riding a bus, “slouched low next to Julie, legs sprawled out into the handicap area, Nikes slanted like a couple of Easter Island heads.”
Most normal human beings could not get from the East Bay to Easter Island in under fifteen words. But Chabon is the Philippe Petit of metaphor: Given any two points, he will find a way to connect them and then, improbable and stylish, stroll on across.
I happen to love Chabon’s flamboyant sentences, but it would not be unreasonable to criticize him on the grounds of overwriting. He knows it, he says, but he can’t help himself: “I think in similes and metaphors. I might get three at once, and I just put all three in the sentence and hope that my editor will say, ‘Can you pick one?’ ” That reasonable-sounding compromise holds for about two seconds. Then Chabon cracks. “You know, to be honest, I often feel like, why not use three similes?” In spoken language, he points out, we are tactically profligate; we just keep on trying stuff until our audience gets what we’re saying. So why not do the same in writing?
The most extravagant piece of prose in the entire Chabon oeuvre occurs halfway through Telegraph Avenue, in a slim chapter consisting of a single 4,000-word sentence. (Point of comparison: This article is 5,000.) When the chapter begins, the owner of the aforementioned parrot has just died; a window is opened, and out goes the bird. He flies off over the East Bay, and for twelve pages, we get a literal bird’s-eye view of the goings-on in the book.
The sentence came about, Chabon says, because he had gotten his protagonists maximally mired in predicaments, and he wanted to check up on all of them before moving on. “That made me think, I wish I could just do a big tracking shot, like in a movie, where I could move effortlessly—fly, as it were—from character to character.” The instant he thought of flying, he realized he needed a parrot. (“I have a thing for literary parrots,” he says.) The parrot, in turn, led to the idea of the single sentence: If the bird could stay in the air all that time, Chabon figured, so could he. Whereupon, “I went and took a drink of brandy from the bar of Faulkner and Proust and Joyce, and reassured myself that I could do this, or at least that this could be done. And then I went and did it. And it was so much fun.”
It is so much fun. In one of my favorite passages (not many sentences have passages), Archy and Titus are alone together for the first time, in a house recently and furiously vacated by Gwen, sharing, in a perverse simulacrum of a pleasant father-son afternoon, a couch, a pizza, and a baseball game. That’s pretty much the only fatherhood trick Archy knows, and he’s so unable to fathom the future that he imagines the game just going on and on:
… inning after inning, week after week, beards growing long, Christmas coming, summer looping back around on itself, wars ending, babies graduating from college, and there’s ball four to load the bases for the 3,211th time, followed by a routine can of corn to left, the commissioners calling in varsity teams and the stars of girls’ softball squads and Little Leaguers, Archy and Titus sustained all that time in their equally infinite silence, nothing between them at all but three feet of sofa …
So: a commentary on fatherhood, which really does go on forever; a joke about baseball games, which could theoretically go on forever and often feel like they do; and a metajoke about sentences, which could also theoretically go on
forever, especially his, and maybe this one really will, and maybe it should, because it is so funny and lovely and strange and sad.
Chabon might be a wildly ornamental prose stylist, but underneath, his story lines are orderly and clean; imagine, if you can, Aristotle in a meat dress. Here is the basic structure of Telegraph Avenue: Two men who are close friends and business partners are married to two women who are close friends and business partners and have two sons who are close friends and … well, define “business.”
In lesser hands, this perfect symmetry could seem contrived, but greater hands get away with such things: See, e.g., The Comedy of Errors. Chabon isn’t Shakespeare — nobody since Shakespeare has been Shakespeare — but he understands that if you build a precisely balanced structure, you can exploit it. For instance, it hurts when you break it. When the business folds and the marriage cracks and the boys drift apart, your readers will feel it. And, conversely, they will be moved and satisfied when you put things back together again.
That’s the outline of Chabon’s novel, and also of his worldview: The things we build will be broken. Back in his living room, he tells me about watching Obama’s 2004 convention speech, and how exhilarating it was to imagine that such a man could someday be president. “About that gap,” he says, “that gap between the shining vision and then what eventually happens: That moment was the purest instance of it for me. I thought, ‘If I put this guy at this party, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, nobody there knows any of it.’ But we will know, reading it.” Some of his early readers, he says, objected to the Obama cameo on the grounds that it pulled them out of the story. But, Chabon says, “I want you to be taken out … to feel that sense of regret and loss for that moment when it was all just ahead of him.”
That man at the fictional fund-raiser: He is going to fail. So far as we can currently tell, he will not fail spectacularly, because of hubris or malevolence or a fatal flaw. He will fail simply because a man at the apogee of a dream has nowhere to go but down. Two weeks after I leave Maine, he will give a long, grave speech at another Democratic convention. “The times have changed,” he will say, “and so have I.”
It is sad, of course, this building and breaking; but it isn’t only sad. Telegraph Avenue begins with Archy in his store, holding a baby he characterizes as “random” and freaking out about his impending fatherhood. It ends with him tucking his own newborn son tenderly into a car seat, Titus back there too, all of them going for a drive down Telegraph Avenue, past Brokeland, past the past. Invoking babies as symbols of renewal is about the oldest trick in the book, and ending your story where it started is none too original either. But no other work of fiction I can think of begins or ends — let alone begins and ends — like this one: with a man holding a baby.
What he aimed for, Chabon says, was to combine regret and loss “with a slight sense of optimism: that there is going to be a next time, that we get these moments and they do recur.” Yes, we hurt most the people we love best. Yes, we abandon or betray our dreams, and whatever we salvage just succumbs to time. But the bad goes as well as the good. The store that inspired Telegraph Avenue is gone now, but the Thang that menaced Brokeland is also sinking on its haunches: The big-box store is not, in 2012, the predator it was a mere eight years ago. And so it goes. Familiar evils fall to fresh hells, old dreams unto new ones, vinyl unto digital, funk unto hip-hop, senator unto president, father unto son. That is Chabon’s theme song, his own Higher Ground.
*This article originally appeared in the September 24, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.