The story begins inside the walls of Brokeland Records. This is Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe's secondhand record shop on Telegraph Avenue, the main drag of the eponymous neighbourhood and a live wire that serves as a connector between Berkeley – land of artisanal cheese, tantric yoga and conflict-free coffee, a place brimming with new and former hippies who have turned righteousness into competition – and Oakland, a working-class, predominantly black city that even before the economic collapse of 2008 was already struggling with the threat of economic flatline. Archy and Nat have been friends for over a decade when the novel opens. Together, they are professional collectors and curators, acolytes at the altar of jazz, blues and funk – black music that is the main artery running through American pop culture. (Part of the charm of this book is the breadth of the author's knowledge of black music from, say, 1940 until the late 1970s. If this novel wins Chabon another Pulitzer, I feel certain it will be the first in history to make a reference to Peabo Bryson.)
Though Nat and Archy are passionate lovers of vinyl, they are less than gifted businessmen, deep in debt, and each keeping an eye scanning the horizon for trouble. It arrives in the form of a whale-sized zeppelin creeping across the sky, boldly advertising Gibson "G-Bad" Goode's entrepreneurial designs on the neighbourhood: plans to build a super-entertainment centre with movie theatres, restaurants and, yes, a music shop, just a few blocks from Brokeland Records. Goode, a former NFL player turned businessman, has revitalised struggling working-class neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, but his plans to do the same in Oakland will surely put Nat and Archy out of business. This kind of "Wal-Mart effect" is a familiar theme in America – large-scale businesses obliterating the character of neighbourhoods. Chabon's twist is that the "big capital" villain here is a black man, a local hero offering hundreds of jobs and uplift for the community, and thereby complicating notions of what "progress" is.
Archy, who is black, and Nat, who is white, find their friendship strained by the gulf between their differing reactions to the outside threat. Further adding to the tension is the relationship between Archy's wife, Gwen, and Nat's wife, Aviva, who are likewise in business together (and also under attack when their midwife practice faces legal threat after a home birth goes horribly wrong). Throw into the mix Archy's long-lost, previously unacknowledged teenage son, Titus, who embarks on a friendship, fraught with romantic complications, with Nat's son, Julius; Archy's estranged father, a former drug addict and Blaxploitation film star, who is on the lam; a crooked undertaker; a jazz legend with a talking parrot on his shoulder; and the ghosts of the Black Panther Party – and what you get is a big, serious, probing American novel, a page-turner that, like Chabon himself, seems to walk the line between high and low culture, between the erudition and intellectual precociousness of jazz and the dark humour and truth-telling of the blues.
Almost nothing Chabon has written previously could have prepared me for this book, though there are elements of his other work here: themes of fatherhood, abandonment, diaspora and complex questions of identity, not to mention gorgeous prose and a dose of humour. What's striking is the number of times I forgot I was reading a Michael Chabon novel. With the front cover flipped back, I could, for a moment, imagine I was holding Colson Whitehead in my hands, Percival Everett or Victor LaValle. But this kind of racial shortcut and lazy thinking about art and its ability to bridge our differences are the very things that the novel's existence argues against. By writing so convincingly from behind the veil of black culture, Chabon has allowed the form of his novel to follow its function, making a powerful statement about the pulse of humanity that runs deeper than our skin colour. Telegraph Avenue finds its heart in the friendships of Archy and Nat, Gwen and Aviva, Titus and Julius – relationships that Chabon allows to be frustrated by race, but never defined by it. The book quietly makes the point that in this millennium of sweeping "change", we have arrived at a place that, if it's not exactly "post-racial", certainly demands that we lay down some of our old ideas about race and the level of communion that's possible between so-called disparate groups. This is the Chabon I most recognise: writer as humanitarian.
Late in the novel, Nat, a man who typically finds expression easier in music than in words, makes a beautiful statement about the dream he and Archy cherished for Brokeland Records at its inception: a "creole" mix of music genres and peoples from all over the world. Chabon's book seems to reaffirm America's promise of its own "Brokeland Creole" dream. Like the characters in the novel, America is still growing up, a nation that often has to be dragged kicking and screaming into its own future. The book is ultimately about the inevitability of change, but it suggests, in the surrender to it, the possibility of grace on the other side.