Michael Chabon's best-selling new novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” is set in and around Brokeland Records, a used-vinyl record store on the border between Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., where Chabon has lived since the late 1990s. The story follows the store's co-owners, band mates Archy Stallings (the son of Luther Stallings, a former star of Blaxploitation martial-arts movies) and Nat Jaffe, as they struggle to keep Brokeland going in the face of competition from a new megastore owned by Gibson Goode, a former NFL quarterback who's now “the fifth-richest black man in America.” In their orbit are their spouses, Gwen and Aviva, both professional midwives; Nat and Aviva's gay son Julius; and his love interest, Titus Joyner, who turns out to be Archy's long-unacknowledged teenage son.
"Telegraph Avenue" is a return to the mainstream mode of Chabon's early novels, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Wonder Boys, following a period of genre hybrids that included his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." Printers Row Journal caught up with Chabon during the Chicago stop of his book tour.
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Q: Brokeland was inspired by a real-life record store that you visited in 1999. What was it like?
A: There were two guys working in the store that day, one white, one black. The customers were all just standing around talking about records, talking about music, shooting the breeze, teasing each other. And it was that apparent community that they'd created, at least for that day, that was the inspiration for the book.
Q: Brokeland seems to specialize in music from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s.
A: They carry a good selection of jazz vinyl from 1955, say, all the way up to the present day. But the particular passion of the owners of the store, the kind they play in their band — one plays bass, the other plays keyboards and guitar — is soul jazz and jazz funk, which flourished in the middle-to-late '60s to the middle-to-late-'70s, about 10 years. It's essentially jazz, played by jazz musicians with improvisation and all the hallmarks of jazz, but with the backbeat pushed very much forward.
Q: Which distinguished it from bebop.
A: Right. It had a kind of danceability that bebop had turned its back on. Jazz had been dance music up through the bebop era, and that was what the bebop musicians were rejecting — the pop nature of what jazz had become by the early '40s. Soul jazz and jazz funk were about restoring the roots of blues and black gospel and swing, essentially by restoring the backbeat. As a result, it was commercially popular. It's sort of forgotten as a genre today, but you had artists like George Benson and Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock, and it was the last time that jazz had hit songs on the charts. It got so popular that it became sort of the soundtrack for that era. Every cop show from the period — the theme from "S.W.A.T." is an example — uses that brassy, jazzy, funky sound.
Q: I couldn't tell from the book whether you came to the writing as a fan of this music already or acquired your knowledge of it through research.
A: I already knew the music; I just didn't know it was a defined, separate genre, a micro-world within the larger world of jazz. George Benson? I knew his music. Those albums of Freddie Hubbard from the early '70s — I had those albums. But I also discovered the music of a lot of artists I hadn't known before: great organ players like Charles Kynard and Reuben Wilson and Leon Spencer, for example, and the guitar player Melvin Sparks.
Q: Forgive the cliché, but if you were going to be marooned on an island and could take three records with you, what would they be?
A: I guess you have to go not with the things you love the most, but things you could stand listening to over and over again. One would be Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," which is what I use most frequently as background music when I'm working. Maybe I'd go for a nice big meaty compilation like "Nuggets," an album of great garage rock from the '60s and '70s. And "In a Silent Way" by Miles Davis. That one I never get tired of listening to.
Q: There's a line in the book where Archy notes that the heyday of muscle cars "corresponded precisely with the most muscular moment in the history of black music in America." Do you share that view?
A: No, it just came from me putting myself in Archy's mind, including how he felt about muscle cars, in particular El Caminos. It just felt true.
I have a thing for muscle cars, and there's at least one in almost all my books. In "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," there's a Plymouth Barracuda. In "Wonder Boys," there's a late-model Ford Galaxy. In "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," the main character drives a Chevelle Super Sport. And in this book, there's an El Camino and an Oldsmobile Toronado. It's part of how I imagine my characters.
Q: You know the crime fiction of George Pelecanos?
A: I love his work.
Q: There's a lot of riding around in cars, often of a certain vintage, listening to this very music we're discussing.
A: That's part of the reason I like his work so much. And of course, some of his books are set in D.C. in the early '70s, and I was there at the time.
Q: Which brings us to the topic of nostalgia. Your book is set in the present, and your characters have an appreciation for the music — and the cars — of 40 years ago. There's a scene in which the narrator says of some collecting cards that a character named Mr. Nostalgia is selling, "They were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you."
A: Nostalgia is a word you can define in different ways. It's often used pejoratively, to define someone who believes things used to be better than they are now — the good old days, as opposed to the bad present days — and is hampered by that. But I think the nostalgia of the characters in the book is not about believing that things used to be better than they are now. It's more about an interest in things that give you an instantaneous, powerful, sensory, palpable dose of the past.
Q: Sounds like Proust.
A: Right, except that it doesn't have to be your own past. It's not merely your personal history in the Proustian sense, where your childhood is summoned by the madeleine in the spoonful of tea. When a building is torn down, and on the side of the building next to it is suddenly revealed a painted advertisement for a horse stable that used to be on that spot, you get that immediate, intense encounter with a surprise survivor from the past, almost as if a time capsule has been opened. That's what I'm talking about in the book — a sense that something wondrous has survived, and it brings it all back to you, even if you never experienced it in the first place.
Q: So I was on page 24 of the book — long before page 93, where there's a reference to "Kill Bill" — and I thought, "This is a Quentin Tarantino movie waiting to happen."
A: (Laughs.) What was it that made you feel that way?
Q: It was a combination of things: the music, the cars, the geography. Also the characters have a somewhat self-conscious way of speaking that I associate with Tarantino. I'm thinking you're familiar with his work.
A: You bet. I'm a fan. I think the answer is that he and I are almost exactly the same age. We both grew up as white boys fascinated by, steeped in and attracted to black popular culture — music, movies, television performers, athletes. ... He's been incorporating elements of it from "Pulp Fiction" to "Kill Bill," including "Jackie Brown," which I think is still his best movie.
Q: There's a flashback scene in the book — where Luther and his buddy Chan spend a fair amount of time discussing what the word "Toronado" means. It's the kind of conversation you'd have in a Tarantino movie.
A: Yes, but — and I don't mean this as any kind of a knock on Tarantino — it might seem like they're having a time-wasting discussion, but it's not just that. Luther is about to embark on an exciting chapter in his life, and Chan is feeling very envious of his friend, who just laid down $3,000 cash for a really sweet Toronado. So really it's about Chan taunting Luther because he resents the fact that he doesn't have a Toronado of his own.
Q: I hear producer Scott Rudin optioned "Telegraph Avenue," and Cameron Crowe is adapting it for the screen. It seems it's not destined to become a Tarantino movie.
A: Wouldn't that be cool, though?
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
By Michael Chabon, Harper, 480 pages, $27.99Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun