ARCHY STALLINGS, co-proprietor of Brokeland Records—a vinyl temple on Telegraph Avenue, straddling the space between black Oakland and white Berkeley, with "unlimited supplies of music and bullshit on tap"—is tired. He's "tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all of their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions." Which is too bad, because Archy has to deal with all of those things. And he's not very good at it.
If anybody's the main character of Telegraph Avenue, it's probably Archy, though Michael Chabon's novel ensnares just about everybody who's ever known or heard of Archy or Brokeland: There's Gibson Goode, a former quarterback and current entrepreneur who aims to plop down one of his chain megastores mere blocks from the struggling Brokeland. There's Archy's pregnant wife, Gwen, who's sick of Archy's constant cheating and general half-assedness. There's Aviva, Gwen's white partner in a midwifery practice, facing fallout from a home birth gone wrong, and there's Nat, Aviva's prickly husband and the other proprietor of Brokeland. "My partner is a cantankerous pain in the motherfucking ass," Archy tells Goode, neatly summing up their relationship. "Also my best friend."
That friendship is tested in Telegraph Avenue, as are all the other relationships—not the least of which is an awkward, desperate romance between Nat and Aviva's son, Julius, and Titus, a 14-year-old boy who shows up on Telegraph Avenue, with the luck—he's not sure if it's good or bad yet—to be thrust into the life of his heretofore-absent father: Archy Stallings.
There's more, but trying to catch everyone is pointless: Telegraph Avenue spins and spins, not about any one person or relationship so much as the inevitable march of progress and heartache for what's gone and what will never be. Set in 2004, the rambling paths of Archy, et al., intersect with those of Barack Obama and Quentin Tarantino, and all of it's held together, appropriately enough, with the few things its main characters have in common: music, movies, and comic books, from Julius' astonishment at first seeing Lady Snowblood to Archy waxing nostalgic about the very existence of records in the '70s—"shipped by the scattered millions to the vanished mom-and-pop record stores of America," with "all those tasty beats and (mostly) tasteful string arrangements marbled together in a final attempt to reclaim jazz as popular music to be danced to and not just an art form to be curated." These are the things that hold Archy and Nat, and Gwen and Aviva, and the smitten Julius and the stoic Titus together—a vast history accidentally cobbled together out of everything from the "smell of grease coming off of Ringo Thielmann's bass line" to Ghostface Killah, his "music so soaked in the world's profanity that it bled like a saturated bandage."
Though Chabon's more interested in some characters than others, and though the book's threads wrap up entirely too neatly, Telegraph Avenue is remarkable in its minute-to-minute struggles with love, race, and inevitable failure. Chabon's prose doesn't hurt either; lyrical as ever, here it lands just this side of florid, with a wry, heartfelt melancholy befitting its subjects and place. In any other book, a particular sentence in Telegraph Avenue—the one that's 12 pages long—would be a chunk of overkill. Chabon, though, pulls it off, its magnitude, earnestness, and ambition not becoming evident until it's already made its mark.