Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Derring Do Scraping By

Michael Chabon split his career in two with 2000's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Before then he was a Respected Young Novelist whose widely praised, commercially robust The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys mined the academic-bohemian nexus in the city where Chabon attended college. He also published two volumes of short stories, many of which initially appeared in The New Yorker. "Naturalistic," Chabon came to call this mode, especially in short-story form; stories of "disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce--I guess that about covers it." And although Chabon was never as dreary as this caricature, in Kavalier & Clay he became a different kind of storyteller--to use another term he means to reclaim, an entertainer. The title characters were two cousins who invent a comic-book superhero called--impudently, yet justifiably--the Escapist.

Audaciously brokering Chabon's mass-culture-meets-high-art IPO, Kavalier & Clay is some kind of masterpiece. Although its action is strictly realistic--nobody flies like the hero of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude--it's also fanciful, panoramic, and full of laughs. The cousins' story has a comic book's what-next pace despite its 636-page heft, packed with adventures almost as swashbuckling as those of the confabulations who make them moderately rich and famous--cartoonist Kavalier moonlights as a magician, defeats domestic Nazis, revives a dying Salvador DalĂ­, and jumps off the Empire State Building. And after it triumphed, Chabon went wild--a Sherlock Holmes novella, a YA fantasy about baseball, an illustrated action saga starring two 10th-century brigands provisionally dubbed Jews with Swords, and a 400-page murder mystery set in a 21st-century Alaska populated by pre-Holocaust European Jews just eight crucial years before the Palestinians' 1948 rout of the Zionists. Entitled The Yiddish Policemen's Union, its alternate-reality premise won it a Hugo as the best science fiction novel of 2008.

In some respects Chabon's big new Telegraph Avenue, which he's dared to brand "naturalistic," calls a halt to such sensationalist frippery. It's set in 2004 near the Oakland-Berkeley border, where Chabon has long resided with his wife and kids, and features plenty of disappointment, misfortune, and loss, although in the end no divorce; insofar as it chronicles one of those liminal bohemias American cities throw up everywhere, it shares a milieu with the Pittsburgh novels too. But where those books were about students and literati, this one dispenses with those dreary conventions. It centers on a Jewish couple from Berkeley and an African-American one from Oakland who share two business partnerships--the wives are midwives, the husbands proprietors of a used LP store. Its de facto protagonist is Archy Stallings, the estranged son of a fallen blaxploitation star named Luther Stallings whose verkakte attempt to revive his career stirs up much unnaturalistic incident amid the disappointment, misfortune, and loss.

The younger Chabon's novels had more than their share of color and intentional violence--the presiding spirit of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh plunges to his death after a Mafia-engineered police chase, and the narrator of Wonder Boys drives around with a dead dog in his trunk before escaping his own death by heaving a dead boa constrictor at a thug with a nine. But the color didn't come near to obviating my big problem with those books, which was that I disliked all six of their major characters. Both are dominated by dashingly hedonistic homosexuals who I assume reminded Chabon of one or both of the men he's said he was in love with back then, and I'm so resistant to the charisma of these rather different guys--one a social-climbing student, the other a carousing editor--that I distrust the narrators who adore them. It's cool that Chabon has stuck with homosexual content through phase two--Clay is gay, the victim in Yiddish Policemen's Union is a homosexual Hasid, and the young teenaged sons of the record dealers discover sex together. But the irresistible wastrel is as tired a trope as quiet desperation, and Telegraph Avenue rejects them both. There's desperation, but it's loud; there are wastrels, but resisting them is a point of honor with Archy Stallings even when the wastrel is himself.

Among the many remarkable things about Telegraph Avenue is that this insistently Jewish novelist chose to focus on the black couple. There are key walk-ons for a villainous OB/GYN, a baby-bearing couple in the hills, and a wigger who litigates for whales to support his $300-a-month vinyl habit. Nevertheless, Nat Jaffe, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, and their son Julie are the only significant white characters in a book that devotes major attention to Luther Stallings, his Cleopatra Jones-channeling consort Valletta Moore, Hammond B-3 master Cochise Jones, a funeral director who runs black Oakland, and a retired quarterback whose Dogpile corporation has made him a mogul. Then there's Archy's son Titus Joyner, on his dad's hands at 14 after his maternal grandmother in Texas passes, and his wife Gwen Shanks, a well-schooled daughter of the civil rights movement and the upper middle class. And there's Brokeland Records itself, which though it peddles anything it can move bears down on the pop funk and fusion jazz of the '70s, the most specifically African-American music of the rock era.

I'm white, so it's possible I've been hoodwinked. But with allowances for the narrative goodies we can praise Anansi that Chabon has no intention of abandoning, I found the tales and conversations he imagines convincing, engrossing, and relaxed. It helps that none of his characters presents the difficulty of being trapped in the underclass, because even Titus, who came damn close, and Luther and Valletta, who are homeless half the time, are well supplied with intellectual capital, as their conversations and interior monologues make amply clear. But, bottom line, these folks are scraping by. The funeral director and the Dogpile magnate are good to go, and Aviva and Gwen have marketable if perilously countercultural skills - and in Gwen's case family money, which she needs when she decides it's time to beat the OB/GYN at his own game by going to medical school. But the organist barely makes ends meet, the lawyer isn't raking in the hourlies, and the main plot involves the magnate's scheme to put Archy and Nat out of business. In short, this is among other things a novel of the endangered middle class--of people who've made something of themselves that may well be taken away. That story is different in the half-bohemian East Bay than in one of those Rust Belt ghost towns where doctors' offices turn into dollar stores, and it's not quite thematic. But as a substratum, it anchors the themes admirably.

Beyond cross-racial relations--a substratum mapped in terms of Gwen versus the OB/GYN and the fight for Brokedown, among other things--the theme is what to make of the dreams of youth as one reaches middle age. That Chabon finds this perplexity daunting is indicated by the title he devised for a 2009 collection of autobiographical reflections culled from a Details column: Manhood for Amateurs. He's daunted in part because as he nears 50 he remains a devotee of such kid culture as comic books, sci-fi, kung fu flicks, and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which he celebrated in a New York Review of Books piece into which he snuck the hilariously un-NYRB sentence: "But it turns out that there are other ways to pass among the worlds than by Lord Asriel's costly method of child-sacrifice and transdimensional demolition." The main reason, however, is his personal variant of everybody else's--the experience of repurposing his career and fathering four kids over nine years with his second wife, whom he married at 30 in 1993.

Chabon was lucky--he got to steer his craft toward the Sea of Childhood, and without surrendering his NYRB passport either. Only that wasn't luck, it was skill, in fact genius, and none of his leads are geniuses--not even championship midwife Aviva, in need of a new partner after Gwen rejects a boutique profession of no material use to the poor African-American women she undertook to serve. Like Chabon, Gwen doubles down on her ideals, refusing to ante up even a perfunctory "I'm sorry" when she breaks the rules. Ultimately, however, her refusal to compromise means she goes straight--gives up the countercultural conceit of natural medicine for real people. And the men lose much more than the women, although Chabon reminds us subtly that as record retailers in 2004 their prospects were pretty sad anyway. At the end Nat is ready to take his trade mail-order, giving up the interracial day-to-day he so loved about his store. He'll probably rent his new space from Archy, who's getting his real estate license--a likely-looking trade that in 2004 is also headed for a major fall.

Chabon's inventiveness requires language dazzling and deft enough to put it across, and like most of his later work, Telegraph Avenue reads easy--I downed 300 pages flying back from Denmark, stopping only to eat and nap. In addition to a 12-page sentence from the point of view of a parrot, there are two areas where he always coruscates without letting the bravura blaze so bright you can't see the next sentence. The first is music, in the past such a casual and catholic matter for Chabon that I bet he had to research fusion as hard as midwifery. The loving savvy with which the Brokeland posse calibrate their enthusiasms could tempt a fella to reassess Creed Taylor, and Chabon's solo on Cochise Jones's Brokeland Creole reconstruction of Jesus Christ Superstar's "I Don't Know How to Love Him"--music that exists solely in his words--is an illusionist's tour de force. Yet though Telegraph Avenue begins with male music palaver, as it should, it only goes into overdrive after a take-home exam in Chabon's other course of study, the topic a troubled birth that had me cheering and squirming and holding my breath for 20 pages of gynecological and sociological derring-do. And 400 pages later Gwen's own birth scene puts this coup in its place. Late as usual, Archy arrives only an instant before his son drops, leaving Gwen's heart, as Chabon puts it, "starred like a mirror by a stone."

In the end, Archy kicks his doglike ways and Gwen forgives Archy and Titus forgives Archy and Luther kicks crack and Archy half-forgives Luther after finally whupping his ass and Nat gets off with community service when the Dogpile blimp he liberated lands harmlessly in Utah and Aviva keeps on being Aviva. Some might find all this pat. Chabon's first marriage was a rousing failure, and years after it ended his second story collection was filled with, like the man said, divorce. But as he pursued a happier union and turned himself into an entertainer--even a bit of a ham, albeit one it's easier to envy than resent--he also developed his version of the Hollywood ending: all three of his major 21st-century novels resolve by reconstituting a troubled marriage in a far more troubled world. In a bias I attribute to novelists' built-in egotism as well as storytelling's penchant for conflict, "serious fiction" is reflexively hard on marriage--considerably harder, in my experience as a reader and a husband, than the world is, which is saying something. Nevertheless, divorce happens, and in a world so troubled we'd better do more than just live in it, a part of me suspects that Chabon should change up his formula a little.

But another part recognizes that for all their shared mass culture heritage, his 21st-century novels change up pretty good no matter how they happen to end. My bet for what's next: a fantasy novel I'll find more readable and grounded than Philip Pullman. But what do I know? One reason I envy this guy is that I'm pretty sure he'll think of something I couldn't.

Barnes & Noble Review, September 10, 2012