"Jews and Blacks" was the name of a 1996 collaboration between Cornell West and Michael Lerner, examining the complex attractions and tensions that link the two cultures. It may also have been an alternate name for Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue," which is in large part a paean to this troubled love affair in novel form.
Chabon is no stranger to the high-concept. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his melancholy, sprawling opus "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay", a historical novel largely about the profound resonance of comic books. In 2007, Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" sprung fully formed from the seemingly whimsical question "hey, what if Israel hadn't survived and they'd sent all the Jews to Alaska instead?"
Over the years, Chabon has consciously dismantled any presumed boundaries between "genre" and "literary" fiction, and consistently delivered the heavyweight goods from within any milieu he chooses. He's Spider-Man with a Ph.D. He's Saul Bellow on Mars. He can write about any universe he cares to inhabit, and bring his readers deep inside of it regardless of whether or not they were previously into that kind of thing.
Chabon's elegant, soulful mastery has earned him the unquestioning trust of fans: if he's driving the bus, we'll get on it, even if the bus is going to break the space-time continuum.
Nevertheless, Chabon hasn't seriously turned his imaginative attentions toward the here-and-now since 1995's "Wonder Boys," and many of his longtime fans can be forgiven for wishing he would. Thankfully, "Telegraph Avenue" quenches our desire. It's set in 2004, but that's close enough.
The book is named for a street in Northern California's East Bay, one that marks a border between historically hippie Berkeley and historically funky Oakland. Nat Brothers and Archy Stallings are jazz aficianados – one Jewish, one black and the owners of a shaggy joint aptly called "Brokeland Records." As their store and neighborhood struggle to survive, a behemoth chain owned by a ridiculously successful local football hero (and Magic Johnston-esque entrepeneur) threatens to drop a store down on Telegraph Avenue like Dorothy's house on The Wicked Witch of the West, putting Nat and Archy out of business. Though their futures are linked, the struggle to save Brokeland (or not) reveals that the priorities and longings of these longtime friends are often surprisingly at odds.
Meanwhile, their wives, Aviva and Gwen (one Jewish, one black) are also partners: they're legendary East Bay midwives. As "Telegraph Avenue's" title indicates, Chabon is interested in gray areas and borders – uncomfortable spaces where worlds collide. Midwifery is one of them. As more and more upper-class women fetishize anything "natural" when it comes to childbirth and rearing, midwifery has gained popularity among the privileged. Gwen, an upper-class black woman who had hoped to reintroduce the practice to less fortunate black Americans, has mixed feelings about the clientele she serves.
As the women struggle with a dramatic birth gone awry, Gwen is provoked by a white doctor and uncharacteristically, well, "loses her s---." Their practice is subsequently threatened, but was she justified? Should she apologize? Aviva would like her to, but bowing and scraping and obsequious submission cost her nothing, while for Gwen, losing face costs her everything. Chabon clearly sees Aviva's point of view, but he also gets why a proud black woman might rather torch the whole operation than surrender her dignity.
Chabon has a near effortless ability to reveal the huge universal human truths that scaffold absurdly specific circumstances, and he does so on nearly every page here. Everyone in/on Telegraph Avenue is dealing with love and loss, fury and failure. They're all just trying to salvage what they care about. And most are teetering uneasily but determinedly on a tightrope between worlds.
Michael Chabon clearly loves the residents of Telegraph Avenue: Jews and blacks, hippies and the homeless, children who break your heart with love and disappointment at the same time, fathers who let you down.
And Chabon has always known soul when he sees it. He captures hope and joy, and appreciates music and food and women and children, but he's troubled. Death is stalking him. Sadness shadows him. He walks the line, the way his most memorable characters always do.
"Telegraph Avenue" may be an especially bittersweet read for Buffalonians, who know better than most the struggles of a place forever straddling success and failure. We are a town that has lived for extended periods with one foot in the promised land, and one in the drink.
The future of great places (and the question of whether capital from without will poison the character within them) is a relevant theme everywhere, but perhaps nowhere so much as in the steel towns of the Northeast. National chains create jobs and save local economies, but what IS a city if not its local businesses? Or its past? And really, is it a luxury problem to even get to ponder whether or not you want a Walmart or a Starbucks in your backyard?
In "Telegraph Avenue" these questions ripple outward and inward until they are asked about everyone and everything the book touches. History confronts progress, success invites failure to the table. And (like Jews and blacks) cultures, generations, and classes struggle to form fruitful alliances, based on common sufferings that are different in the details, but similar in their DNA.
As always, Chabon doesn't provide pat answers to the age-old problems he explores, but he's able to dig deep into fear and sadness and come out with arms full of gold.
Emily Simon is a freelance writer from Buffalo now living in California.
By Michael Chabon
Harper480 pages, $27.99?