Chabon on race, sex, Obama: "I never wanted to tell the story of two guys in a record store"

The Pulitzer winner and early Obama backer felt blacks had become invisible to him. The result: "Telegraph Avenue"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 20, 2012 3:25PM (EDT)

Michael Chabon    (Jennifer Chaney)
Michael Chabon (Jennifer Chaney)

If you’ve ever lived in Berkeley, Calif., that much-ridiculed college town on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay, or even visited the place, you probably have highly specific associations with Telegraph Avenue, a historic street of political protests and retail commerce (legal and otherwise) that dead-ends against the University of California campus at Sather Gate. Michael Chabon’s new novel is pointedly not about that Telegraph Avenue, and its characters have no relationship to the university campus or to the 1960s explosion of left-wing activism that made Berkeley internationally famous – and, briefly, in my childhood, the locus of martial law as ordered by the governor of California, Ronald Reagan.

Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” calls our attention, literally and figuratively, to the other end of the street, where Telegraph crosses the city line and becomes the main drag of the Temescal district, a racially and economically mixed neighborhood in northwest Oakland. That’s where Archy Stallings, a 36-year-old African-American Gulf War vet who is the novel’s central character, and his Jewish partner Nat Jaffe (whose background resembles Chabon’s own) are not so slowly running a vintage vinyl emporium called Brokeland Records into the ground. It’s the summer of 2004, and a wealthy former NFL star and Oakland native, Gibson “G-Bad” Goode, is planning to open an immense new retail-entertainment complex – called, wonderfully, the “Dogpile Thang” – four blocks away, applying the coup de grace to Archy and Nat’s failing business.

But if the Pulitzer-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” started out with the aim of capturing one peculiar neighborhood’s distinctive ambience, there’s no mistaking the enormous social and cultural and literary ambition of “Telegraph Avenue” (which actually began life as a proposed TV series for producer Scott Rudin in the late ‘90s, before morphing into a novel). This is a book about the shifting nature of race relations in the 21st century, one in which a young senatorial candidate from Illinois who would, a few years hence, implausibly be elected president makes a surprise guest appearance. It’s a book about the traumas and failures and transient joys of fatherhood in general – about which Chabon, who has four kids with his wife, novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, has always written wonderfully – and more specifically about black fatherhood, a topic few white writers would dare to go near.

Archy and Nat’s ambiguous struggle against the Dogpile empire, and their far more important struggle to save their respective families, their friendship and their shared dream, is nearly matched by the stories of their wives, who are business partners in their own venture. Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe are professional nurse-midwives who’ve purged much of the herb-infused, New Age Berkeley-ness from their practice and established it as a legitimate medical resource, but who now face a many-leveled crisis after a home birth goes disastrously wrong. Throw in Nat and Aviva’s teenage son, who is brilliant, eccentric and probably or certainly gay; Archy's resurfaced teenage son, who Archy only dimly knew existed; and the deadbeat dad Archy knows entirely too much about – one-time blaxploitation kung-fu star Luther Stallings – and a raftload of supporting characters, and you get a richly flavored, thoroughly engrossing stew of stories and ideas and themes.

Chabon is not a writer to let one metaphor suffice when two (or five) will do the job, but his style is so joyful and his dialogue so contagious that once I got in the swing of “Telegraph Avenue” I never minded the florid effusion of verbiage. Some of his character asides are so delicious they’re worth the price of admission all on their own. At one point Archy reflects that in our age “everything good in life was either synthesized in transgenic cyborg vats or shade-grown in small batches by a Buddhist collective of blind ex-Carmelite Wiccans.” Even better is Gwen’s startling meditation on her deepening dislike for the Bay Area, “with its irresolute and timid weather, the tendency of its skies in any season to bleed gray, the way it had arranged its hills and vistas like a diva setting up chairs around her to ensure the admiration of visitors.”

That’s the kind of dislike that can only be fully understood by those who have lived in a place and loved it. When I met Chabon in the backyard of a restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., to talk about the opposite coast, I told him that I had grown up in Berkeley and Oakland, and once worked at a pizza parlor a few blocks from his fictional record store. (I left town long before he got there.) But those are irrelevant personal details that may restrict my enjoyment of the book as much as they augment it; he’s clearly screwed if readers have to grasp all the geographical nuances or call up images of particular parks and intersections. I did not, however, tell him that an award-winning writer I know well completed a 1960s novel called “Telegraph Avenue” some years ago that made the rounds of New York publishers without finding a home. After all, somebody had to grab that title eventually, and Chabon’s sprawling and thoroughly addictive book makes wonderful use of it.

Talk to me about the title, because people who know the Bay Area, and even people who don’t, may expect something very specific from a novel called “Telegraph Avenue.” And that isn’t what you’ve given us at all.

I actually wrestled with that for a while. The title was always “Telegraph Avenue,” dating back to the time when this was going to be a TV series. As I was working on the novel and people would ask me what it was called, and I said “Telegraph Avenue,” people either just got like, “Ughhh,” or they would be like, “Oh! Blondie’s Pizza!” And I would be like, no, no, no. Not that Telegraph Avenue. I started thinking of changing the title to “Brokeland,” and my editor talked me out of that. When I said “Brokeland,” people would be like, “Brooklyn? Brockland? What is it? Is it about the economy?” She really wanted me to go back to “Telegraph Avenue,” so I did. What’s annoying now is that people keep calling it “Telegraph Hill.” [A prominent geographical feature of San Francisco, across the bay.]

Well, that’s just profoundly ignorant. You can’t do anything about those people.

Ultimately, look how many great books have terrible titles. I mean “Love in the Time of Cholera,” that’s a terrible title.

Is it? You remember it. Isn’t that what you want?

Because it’s such a great book. But when he tried it out on people, they were probably like, “Cholera? You want to put that right in the title? It’s a downer, man.” [Laughter.]

It’s a lot about the way words sound, I guess. “Telegraph” is a great word, with a lot of cultural resonance.

Yeah, and “Telegraph Avenue” scans really nicely too. It’s double dactyls.

These are the things writers think about.

When they are supposed to be writing. [Laughter.]

Let’s talk about Brokeland, which is a lovely word, although I assume you didn’t coin it – that border zone between Berkeley and Oakland, which is also a cultural collision between whiteness and blackness, and between lots of other things too. What was it about that area of the world that appealed to you so strongly?

Well, I mean, it’s where I live, essentially. We live in Elmwood [on the south side of Berkeley], so we spend a lot of our time down on Telegraph, between about 51st and 40th. We moved there in 1997, when Temescal [the neighborhood of northwest Oakland that adjoins Berkeley] was just barely starting to regain … It’s one of those parts of Oakland that, like Rockridge [a more affluent adjacent neighborhood], was like almost killed by the construction of the Grove-Shafter freeway. Rockridge recovered a lot sooner, and Temescal was this historic neighborhood that was just starting to recover when we moved to the area.

I was just drawn to it right away. There was just something about that part of Oakland that was appealing to me. When I first started to think about this as a television show in the late ‘90s, almost on a hunch, I set the location of this fictitious record store on Telegraph Avenue. By the time I started writing the novel I knew the area very well, and I was convinced it had been a lucky guess that turned out to be right on the money. I did an interview just before going off on my book tour and I met the reporter at an Ethiopian restaurant on Telegraph [presumably the model for a restaurant in the novel]. Afterwards I crossed the street with a photographer, and right there on the corner I look in this half-open doorway, and there are vinyl records going down the wall and no markings on the outside because they hadn’t opened yet. It was this used vinyl store that is opening on Telegraph Avenue right now, just blocks away from where I had imagined this book taking place.

You know, I’m so cynical, especially when it comes to the Bay Area, that I would have said that wasn’t possible now. But maybe it’s more possible now than it was before the recession and the real estate crash.

One of the things I enjoyed about setting the book in 2004 is that you have this dramatic irony. The reader and the writer know more than our characters, who are so terrified. We know that Dogpile [the retail empire owned by retired football stare Gibson Goode] probably went under within a couple of years of this. A big tsunami is coming to flatten him, too. In a way, the cool thing about Berkeley and Oakland, and the little stores of Berkeley and Oakland, is that they hang on. If they die something new comes on to take its place. People there will start a business out of passion, out of love. There are enough people who are a part of your church, whatever your church happens to be, to support you, at least for a little while, and you can sort of stand your ground. You know, Barnes & Noble came into downtown Berkeley and built a big store right across the street from Pegasus Books on Shattuck Avenue. Pegasus Books is still there, and Barnes & Noble is gone.

OK, but what was it specifically about Berkeley and Oakland that grabbed you? Because this is a novel about a place that’s also about race in America in the 21st century and about fatherhood and about a lot of other things. But before you could do that you had to get ahold of a story.

Yeah, it was this one store I walked into. I’ve been engaged in this process, since I maybe turned 40, of reconnecting through my fiction, with parts of myself -- my upbringing, my heritage, whatever it may be -- that had great importance, that I had somehow lost or abandoned or forgotten or set aside. Comic books, in “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” I began reconnecting to my Jewish heritage, especially with that book and then culminating with “Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” Genre fiction, you know, just reconnecting as a reader.

And then the last remaining key element of my biography that I had wandered from, and in some ways the most painful to me -- which took me a while to get around to facing -- was black people, and their relative visibility or invisibility in my life, in sort of Ellisonian terms. I grew up in Columbia, Md., which during the 10 or 11 years my family lived there tried and to a fair degree succeeded to be a very racially integrated, economically integrated, place where all were welcome.

Yeah, I see where you gave a special acknowledgment to James Rouse, the planner of Columbia. That was a landmark in suburban planning, kind of the birthplace of “new urbanism” and one of the first, if not the first, intentionally integrated suburbs.

Right. And in Columbia I grew up surrounded by black kids. They were in my classroom, they were my friends, they were my enemies, they were my persecutors and my saviors and my girlfriends and my teachers and my school principals, and when I left Columbia, I rapidly discovered that the rest of the world wasn’t like that. It was a rude awakening for me.

You’ve spoken a lot about moving to Pittsburgh and encountering a degree of white racism that you hadn’t encountered before.

Just startling. It would be like someone who was raised fundamentalist Christian encountering the raunchiest pornography for the first time. The most memorable encounter I remember was with a policeman, a Pittsburgh policeman, just hearing him so comfortably and casually spout the most atrocious kinds of things about black people who were nearby. And then this long period began, because of where I was living and what I was doing, where I drifted away from that experience of being around black people and living around black people -- and feeling connected to African-American culture just got away from me.

It was this day when I walked into this used record store, Berigan’s Records on Claremont Avenue, that isn’t there anymore. I saw the guys working there, a black guy and a white guy, and the customers were a mix and I just had this little feeling of like, here’s a little tiny bubble that reminds me of that big bubble that I grew up living under, like a city under the sea. It just made me wonder: Why have black characters been so absent from my fiction, not to mention the circumstances of my life? I wanted to go there in fiction, but it is just another way of trying to reconnect to things that I see as having been a real source of strength for me in an earlier part of my life, and wondering if it can be that again.

There’s such a strong feeling of that in the book, and I can identify with that on a personal level. I think anyone who grew up in a multiracial context in the ‘70s and ‘80s will feel that vibe. I was also thinking about the history of race in American literature, which is such an enormous theme. I know this is the biggest cliché in the world, but in thinking about Archy and Nat and their record store, I was thinking about Huck and Jim on the raft.

Me too. I mean, to me, Brokeland Records is the raft. You know, it’s this magical space, where purely by volition on the part of the people who climb onto that raft all the hate and all the prejudice, and all the differences, kind of recede like the distant shores of the Mississippi on either side and you’re alone in this state of mutual respect, affection and shared interest. That’s how that record store is for Nat and Archy, and I definitely, at some point, cottoned on to that aspect of it. It’s very powerful, and I believe in it too. Even if it’s a pipe dream I still believe in it.

It’s what I heard Barack Obama, you know, when he gave that keynote address at the 2004 convention – what he was talking about, to me, was Columbia, Md. The America he was describing, was the dream of Columbia, the vision of Columbia, I had grown up believing in. And it’s a raft too. It’s Huck and Jim’s raft. It sometimes seems like a will-o’-the-wisp, but on the other hand it won’t go away, as a beckoning image of possibility or potential.

You have two white characters in the book who are really obsessed with black culture and involved with it. One of them is Nat, the record store proprietor, who refuses to “talk black” even though he grew up in a black neighborhood and had a black stepmother. And then there’s his evil or comic doppelganger, Moby the lawyer, a Jewish guy who’s always trying to be “down” and talk street, and is basically a figure of ridicule. Nat is obviously more like you – but how much did you have to contend with the voice in your head that was warning you about the dangers of being Moby?

Oh, all the time, I mean always. And, I mean, just even growing up in Columbia -- the word “wigger” had not yet been invented, but I was aware of kids like that. That was a style of being white, even when I was a kid in the ‘70s. And you can’t make a generalization about it, I feel like some kids, some white kids, were able to do it and pass in that sense.

There’s always the model of Johnny Otis, the R&B legend who grew up in Berkeley, and who died a few months ago. People kind of forgot he was white after a while.

Right, and there were other kids who were the object of ridicule, who could never quite pull it off, or you just sensed a sort of raised eyebrow in the way black kids were looking at that kid. It’s not always doomed to failure, it’s a strange alchemical thing. But, you know, I went into this project with my eyes open, and I didn’t kid myself. I certainly didn’t congratulate myself that my incredible powers and having grown up with a bunch of black kids somehow gave me the magical right to write from the point of view of a black person. I just thought I could do it if I tried, and that’s what I did.

But I was also aware the whole time that it’s historically problematic for white artists to adopt modes of speech, or dress, or style, or music, or whatever it might be. There’s this history of -- you know, minstrelsy takes many forms. I wanted to always be conscious of that and be careful and be respectful, but also to signal, at least to the more alert reader, that I’m aware of this as a problem by using blaxploitation movies, for example, as a key motif in the book. Blaxploitation was complicated, but sometimes involved white producers and filmmakers getting all the money, while selling these movies to black audiences. It’s more complicated than that, but that was a way of signaling it. The character of Moby was a way of signaling it.

Right. And it’s not like Moby trying to speak in street idioms, and sometimes sounding foolish doing it, makes him a bad guy.

No, he’s not at all. It doesn’t rankle any of the black characters as much as it rankles Nat, who is so studious about never “talking black.” Whenever I find myself coming up against what feels like a stereotypical situation or character, my impulse is always to try to make it more ambiguous. Like, with the big-box store coming in to destroy the mom-and-pop business, the big-box store is really well-intentioned and has a kind of progressive social agenda behind it, and is trying to bring jobs and self-esteem to this damaged neighborhood, and is owned by a black man. So with Moby, he is a figure of ridicule to a certain degree, but he’s also a really sweet guy and he comes through in a pinch for Gwen when she’s in trouble. Nothing’s black and white, to coin a phrase.

Maybe we can talk a little about the handling of gender and sex in the book. You’ve reached into two super-duper-male narrative modes, by going into the blaxploitation movies and all the obscure record-store stuff, the jazz and funk and soul from the ‘70s. I don’t think I’m off base in saying that the influence of Quentin Tarantino and Nick Hornby is hovering in the air over this book. You’re trying to go into those ultra-male zones and make it out alive as a guy with some feminist credentials, and with a book that women will still want to read.

Well, actually, now that you mention it -- I’m a Tarantino fan. “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” are two of my key movies, and I love “Kill Bill” too. But he’s also a white artist who’s been accused of appropriating black modes of speech and characters and using the N-word too freely. That was another way of signaling that I know what I’m doing has a history, and it’s not always a good history and here’s another example of that ambiguity. You know, I never just wanted to tell the story of two guys in a record store. I always wanted, for my own interest as a writer, to find a way to balance it out. One of the more obvious ways to balance it out was by having some strong female characters. I'm on this never-ending quest in my writing to bring my female characters up to the level of importance and plausibility of the male characters. It’s something I’ve been struggling with since the beginning, and I feel like with each book I’ve made progress in that regard. I feel like Gwen – she and Archy are the main characters in the book, and she may have marginally less time in terms of pages than Archy does, but I feel like I got fairly close.

Well, and she and Aviva are midwives, which is arguably the most female-centric realm you could possibly have come up with!

I began conceiving this idea right at the time when my wife and I were having a lot of kids. We were having our second kid and we used a nurse-midwife for that birth, and I got fascinated by that work. I mean, come on, it’s like the most powerful job you can have, and I knew it would give juice to whatever work I put it in. I felt like we have this super-male world, if I want to balance it out, let’s just go completely female on the other hand and have this stuff about birth and labor and see where it takes me and what it gets me. That was even before I started thinking of it in terms of race and the politics of hospitals and all that stuff.

Was that the area where you had to do the most research?

I knew a lot already, but I did research and I talked to midwives and it was really helpful. In terms of how much time I spent doing research, I spent a lot more time going to used record stores, buying records and coming home and playing them and listening to them and reading about music probably than I did researching the midwifery.

How many guys, over the years, have used that pretext for buying old albums and watching old movies? And you’re the one person in the history of the world who actually followed through. All of us have spent time assuring our wives and girlfriends that …

“It’s for work! It’s a write-off!” [Laughter.] Part of what helps me decide which book to write is which one sounds like it’s going to be the most fun to research. Like Yiddish, for example. When am I ever going to study Yiddish and read lots of Yiddish literature if I don’t give myself this pretext? I have a self-improving streak, an auto-didactic streak, and part of the reason I like writing novels is because they give me the excuse to learn about things I didn't know about before.

Archy and Nat seem to share the view that African-American music starts to go downhill after 1990 or so. Are you going to get major pushback on that? That strikes me as a white-boy opinion.

Oh, Archy doesn't feel that way, no. He won’t subscribe to that theory. He likes hip-hop. I think Archy’s heard it all before so Nat doesn't get a rise out of him anymore, but Archy’s still keeping up with black music. He certainly would have made it all the way through the golden age of hip-hop, all the way through Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang. He’s probably not that into Lil Wayne. [Laughter.]

I always love the moments in movies or TV shows or novels where it feels like characters step into the foreground to have a conversation that is meta-textual or whatever, a conversation about what is happening in the work around them. But it really takes some balls to have Barack Obama be one of the people having that conversation. I understand that historically and chronologically, he fits. But how did you decide to put him in there?

Well, there was the thematic resonance he had for me. I was talking before about that speech that he gave. It started out as a plot idea essentially or the solution to a problem I had. These guys are in a band and I want to show them playing together, I want to explore that side of their relationship. I needed to send them somewhere and I thought, well, they play in clubs. That’s kind of boring. I could send them to a wedding and that sort of appealed to me. I knew I was going to have a funeral and I have a birth. Then I thought, nah, too much. So then I thought, well, political fundraiser and this is August 2004 so it’s John Kerry. And I thought about a Kerry fundraiser that my wife and I went to in the Berkeley hills that year.

Was Obama there?

No, not at that one. But shortly after he was elected to the Senate, he did a fundraiser for somebody in the Bay Area, around the end of 2004. My wife Ayelet went to that, and she claims – I think with reason -- that she was the first person to utter the words “Obama ’08.” They went to law school together, and she was kind of teasing him a little. He said, “Ayelet, be quiet,” which she’s used to hearing. But that memory bumped into the memory of the Kerry fundraiser and I thought, “What if it was Barack Obama?” and right away I was like: Yes, perfect. Because he would have just come from that DNC, just made that beautiful speech, the one that when I listened to it I thought about Columbia. This is the theme of the book, I’m writing about this whole thing. He belongs in this book.

You know, I think Obama’s rise and his election mirrored the desire that I had been feeling for black people to be more visible in my life. And wow! My wish came true in such a huge way. There are two key days for me in the history of my own racism, my own blindness. One is the day the O.J. verdict was announced, when I was living in Los Angeles, and suddenly a million black people became visible to me. The primary thing I felt at that moment was, “Why am I so surprised? Why didn’t I know that?” I should've known that this would be the reaction, that this would send people out to the streets celebrating and dancing, and I didn't. And the reason I didn't was because I haven’t been paying any attention, because I’ve been cut off from this world, from these people, from this community that I used to be connected to.

And then the counterpart of that is the day after Barack Obama was elected president when, again, not just for me but for white people all over America, black people suddenly became visible. Everybody reported walking down the street the next day and just saying hi -- black people, white people, greeting each other, smiling at each other, with this sense of “Here we all are, on this raft together, at least for one day.” That moment fell within the period that I was working on this novel, and it felt like in writing this book I was contributing, perhaps. Certainly I was increasing the visibility of black people in my fiction, and maybe in the work of white writers generally. Everyone’s kind of steered away from it, with the exception of George Pelecanos and Richard Price, and that’s so much in a crime context. In bourgeois fiction, in family fiction, in novels that aren’t about drug dealers, you’re not going to find a lot of black people in the work of white people.

Absolutely true. How did that happen?

Well there’s this painful experience I guess in the wake of “Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron, which kind of cleared the field in a way. It scorched the earth and sowed salt in the frozen ground. However valid the criticism [of that book] may be in terms of appropriation and colonialism and whatever ism you want to ascribe to it, I think it was an unfortunate thing if what it means is that generally speaking white people never write about black people. How can that be a good thing?

You have many conversations between black people in this book. But having a private conversation in which Barack Obama is “talking black” with Gwen, at least a little, might be the riskiest thing in this entire book. I haven’t seen this reaction, actually, but some readers of whatever race may not want to go there with you.

Yeah, well, some people have complained that it’s cringe-worthy or that it’s awkward or that it was a mistake to do that. I think that’s just completely wrong. I stand by my portrayal -- not of Barack Obama the man, whom I don't know at all, none of us do -- but of the public character known as Barack Obama. I’ve paid attention to the way he talks in many contexts: what kind of audience he happens to be addressing, small or large, white or black, whatever it might be. I paid close attention and I feel like I got it right. I feel like that is what he would say under those circumstances. And the other thing to say about his appearance in that scene is that he’s still working; he’s on the job. Even though he relaxes a little bit with Gwen and lets his guard down just a tiny bit, enough to talk with her with seeming comfort as a black person to another black person, what he says to her is kind of a platitude. It’s like, “People who find work to do that they really love, those are the lucky ones.” Duh! Everybody knows that. But it’s the combination of his saying it to her at this moment, where this is exactly what she’s wrestling with. A cliché or a platitude can be just as powerful as a profound insight if that’s how you’re prepared to hear it.

Are you a fan of Obama’s in general?

Yeah, very much. I’m still incredibly impressed with him. When he completes his second term, then it will be time to begin to judge what kind of a president he’s been. I’ve experienced disappointments, like so many other people who voted for him -- and I did so much more than vote for him. In particular I’m disappointed with the drug policy and First Amendment stuff. But on the other hand, what my wife always says is that the reason we’ve worked so hard for him was so we would have the chance to be disappointed by him. Considering what he’s had to deal with -- not just this colossal disaster of the economy but this virulently hateful, disloyal opposition -- he’s done better than anybody else who could have become president could’ve done.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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