Telegraph Avenue, By Michael Chabon

Music with a heart lends a soundtrack to a richly arranged novel of community and social change

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The Independent Culture

It takes a rare jazz talent, a Coltrane or Art Pepper, to wring subtle, free-form high-note improvisations from a musical instrument while keeping the low bass notes honest. Michael Chabon's ambitious, richly textured novel orchestrates a community's lofty ideals of change and regeneration and peoples it with loveable characters whose moral code is the studied negligence of "whatever".

Brokeland Records, a church of vinyl, is stuck in its groove. Sales of their funk and soul rarities are catastrophically poor as digital consumes their market. Co-owner Archy is tired of being a sole survivor "waiting to be hammered flat by late-modern capitalism", while his business partner Nat is one of life's endearing music obsessives, or in the opinion of his wife, another useless man.

Nat's passion is for all things that cannot be "killed, fucked or fed upon". Gibson "G-Bad" Goode, the fifth richest black man in America, plans to open a music megastore that will wipe out what little black culture status they have left on Telegraph Avenue. Goode likes to do business in his customised Zeppelin which is as shiny and gigantic as his ego. Archy is tempted by his job offer, to escape the "especial uselessness of the third generation socialist". Nat, however, considers the airship and its entourage to represent all the ways the world is broken. One drunken night he liberates the airship and watches it gust away in the wind, his one true "fly" gesture in his life that is ever-receding .

Chabon is a champion of the amateur, the enthusiast, while conceding that they are increasingly disenfranchised. Men are timewasters, collectors, vinyl junkies, their urgings a "compound of OCD and existential panic". As fathers they are usually absent and, in Archy's case, his is a rundown ex-Blaxploitation movie star with Black Panther connections who emerges to seek him out for blackmail money.

Archy's breezy cool deep-dives several more degrees of chill when his son Titus, abandoned 14 years ago, turns up needing food and shelter. He's having a relationship with Nat's teenage son Julius. Their emotional boldness spiked with the cravings of innocence is very touching. Julius inhabits an airlock of self doubt, and the memoir he is writing is turning into an epic monument to his loneliness.

Goode and his high-flying business ventures offer a straighter course of mortgages and index linked pensions for Archy and Nat should they decide to abandon their role "as guardians of some ancient greatness". But as alto saxophonist Art Pepper said in his autobiography, straight life is like going cold turkey: "it's awful but it's quiet. You just lay there and suffer." Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are a birth partner duo, homebirth midwives of considerable respect within the Oakland, California community. Their work is elemental and necessary but outmoded as the convenience and sterility of hospital births are encouraged. Their business and way of life are under threat as even the most intimate aspects of life are corporatised.

Telegraph Avenue is a pungent, spicy, bitches' brew of a novel. Chabon's extended verbal riffs are exhilarating. It's riotous, baggy and brilliant, and the imagery, like a Martian poet's, constantly startles. Chabon is like Archy playing bass in his P-Funk tribute band Bop Gun: "Brother puts his heart into it, you can see that. A lot of heart."

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