Two middle-aged buddies run a used-record shop, and their wives help deliver babies.
Welcome to the department of cultural studies at Chabon University. I see you've chosen "Leisure Suits: An Appreciation" and "The Philosophy of 'Blaxploitation' Films" as your courses. Quite ambitious. It could be fun, or it could leave you asking, "What the hell ... ?"
The syllabus for those and the dozens of other subjects celebrated by Michael Chabon is "Telegraph Avenue," his dazzling star turn of a novel that showcases the author's writing talents like a digital TV screen above Times Square.
The writer puts on a show for readers mostly because he can, but it's not a casual hobby for Chabon (who remembers every TV show, movie, album, comic book, trading card or car model from his childhood), but the very essence of his understanding of the world. Where Henry James focused on a glance, Chabon interprets the sounds of a Hammond B3 on Carole King's "It's Too Late."
This torrent of information is turned loose on the first page of the novel unfolding in the shabby quarters of Brokeland Records, repository of mid-century music on the avenue that runs between Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., in 2004. Proprietors Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are two middle-aged dudes with little ambition who'd rather shoot the breeze than make a sale.
Their spouses -- Gwen and Aviva -- are Berkeley's leading midwives, a mobile crew who do home deliveries. Nat and Aviva's teenage son, Julie, devotes his time to an eight-track tape player while Archy and Gwen await their first child -- well, Gwen's first. Archy's lost son has just arrived to complicate things. And things do get complicated with a cast of characters big enough to require a scorecard:
Luther Stallings, Archy's estranged father and onetime blaxploitation film star; Gibson Goode, "the fifth most richest African-American" who travels by private blimp; Oakland City Councilman Chad Flowers, Luther's onetime partner in crime; Cochise Jones, master of the Hammond B3 (and its victim); a 90-year-old female kung fu master who runs the Bruce Lee Institute of Martial Arts and a young Barack Obama.
Plots and subplots emerge, intertwine and wander off to get lost among the countless pop culture references. Characters are born, die, separate and reach understandings at long last.
"Telegraph Avenue" is a journey along a bumpy road littered with pitfalls, but none too awful. Chabon is a compassionate creator of decent people who are saved by the sweetness he grants them. Chabon does love popular culture, but he loves humanity more, and that love is the power behind this sweeping novel.
Bob Hoover is the retired books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.