A funky throwback

Archy Stallings, the African-American record store merchant at the center (or slightly off center) of Michael Chabon's grand new novel "Telegraph Avenue," lives by his belief that the decade after his 1968 birth "corresponded precisely with the most muscular moment in the history of black music in America," and by extension, the most glorious era in American culture.

Fortunately for him, nature, nurture, free will and the reality-bending logic of magic realism allow him to experience the summer of 2004 as if he's living in a Blaxploitation flick/Bruce Lee movie double feature, with a '70s soul-jazz soundtrack. He wears vintage leisure suits and platform shoes, drives a meticulously maintained 1974 El Camino, and is surrounded by a supporting cast that includes a bloodthirsty Black Panther, a conspiracy-minded kung fu master, danger-courting teen sleuths, a funkmaster with Baretta's bird as his talon-tapping sideman, a retail rival resembling the Kingpin from classic Marvel comics, and an aging Pam Grier-esque sister (if not two) keeping it fly and doing what she has to do. Even the way Archy segments his personal history as before-and-after periods of his Gulf War military service echoes his Vietnam-era predecessors.

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That Archy can let his funk flag fly is a byproduct of Brokeland, the nom de guerre of his Bay Area neighborhood and the name of the shop he co-owns with his ornery Jewish friend Nat (the kind of cat the late Oscar Brown Jr. might designate "an honorary soul brother from way back"). That imprecise amalgamation of the names and geography of Berkeley and Oakland represents the messy miscegenation at the heart of Chabon's novel, a multi-ethnic Mulligan stew where poor blacks mix with middle-class lefty, activist whites (whose post-hippie posturings also land them squarely in the Nixon years).

This frequently leads to discomfort and frustrations, particularly for Archy's long-suffering wife, Gwen, whose midwifery practice finds itself solely catching babies from New Age white women, while the black mothers she hoped to help "don't want to be messing with that country (stuff)." But as Chabon argues (and Archy ultimately orates), it's this uncomfortable racial coupling, mixed with the area's Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Hmong and other demographics, that make Brokeland's bloodline stronger than the pure, inbred Habsburg habitats of the world. Amusingly, it also allows for cameos, of sorts, by two icons of cross-racial culture-mashing, a pre-Age of Obama state senator for Illinois named Barack, and a post-"Kill Bill" Quentin Tarantino.

As demonstrated in Telegraph Avenue's epic Pulitzer-pulling predecessor, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," and in Chabon's other novels, shorter works, essays, children's books and comics, the author is a hypnotizing master of language, crafting fresh descriptors for familiar functions, poetic detours that never sacrifice narrative flow, well-oiled metaphorical machinations, and seamless time travelling that makes the phrase "flashback" seem obsolete. Certainly there isn't a passage in Telegraph Avenue that couldn't function as an Iowa Writer's Workshop workout tape.

But Chabon's writerly wizardry isn't the trademark that stands out most in his latest work; it's his position as a leader of the generation of writers who strive to de-ghettoize pop culture themes and references by elevating them to literary loftiness. In this sense it's difficult not to compare aspects of this novel to the works of his contemporaries. Obviously the ultra-knowledgeable record clerk chatter recalls Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity." And there's a sequence with salt and pepper teen boys exploring confused sexuality that's so similar to one from Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude" that it might as well be a sampled Clyde Stubblefield drum break.

But holding up Telegraph Avenue to the high points of contemporary literature may do it few favors. There's something thrilling about the constant flow of R&B, comic book, cinematic and literary references, most real, some conjured. But it requires its diverse cast of characters to often converse as if they all were avid readers, vinyl hounds, film buffs, Trekkies and Jack Kirby collectors in ways that work against the themes of diversity so crucial to the novel's manifesto. The primary object of geekery in the novel is grooving soul-jazz-funk, and the pews of this Church of Vinyl bend under the often hefty backsides of a heterogeneous flock. There are brilliantly elucidated lines drawn between (though few harsh value judgments made of) African-American accomplished musician record collectors, white folks who know the score, black brothers who understand the value of Miles and Maceo but prefer the smooth sounds of Peabo Bryson, embarrassing Caucasians spouting minstrel dialect while spending beaucoup bucks on rarities, and youthful nerds fetishizing the eight-track era. But at times their reference-dropping speech patterns blur.

More crucially, Chabon's important ambition to write this novel largely from the point of the view of African-American and female protagonists requires him to find voices farther from his own than he necessarily accomplishes here. That he engaged in this diversity, and chose not to mediate "minority" viewpoints through the eyes of white navigators is admirable, but not an unqualified success.

But those critiques hold weight only if one demands Chabon deliver unblemished work to the great literary canon, and strive for high art. Despite the author's masterful prose and his low-culture loving brethren, it's a mistake to ignore the charms, history and heritage of lowbrow literature when reading these revered works. The blaxploitation era Archy won't let die had a reading list, which included the rediscovery of the pulpy crime masterpieces of Chester Himes, the ascension of the stereotype-spouting Shaft novels of Ernest Tidyman, and Iceberg Slim's brutal pimp poetry. These were the paperbacks in the back pockets of bellbottoms, and despite the complexity of themes, fearlessness in confronting complex racial issues, and refusal to demonize anyone, Telgraph Avenue unquestionably re-creates many of the pleasures of these flawed, pandering page-turners.

It is a book in which action movie fans end up re-creating their favorite scenes, absurd mysteries are slowly revealed, payback and consequences are played out to satisfactory ends, and fantastic coincidences consistently deliver soap opera connections and disconnections that make the "Who's Your Baby Daddy" DNA testing of the Maury Povich era moot.

If the novel's function is to deliver unqualified brilliance and literary awards, Chabon may not be in the pocket during this session. But as far as laying down a jam that grooves, entertains, entrances and sticks in your head with infectious melodies, to quote fictional Obama's assessment of Archy's bass playing, "brother puts his heart into it."

Jake Austen is editor of Roctobermagazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.

Telegraph Avenue

By Michael Chabon, Harper, 480 pages, $27.99

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