There are writers who can write, and there are writers who can create. Michael Chabon is a true creator. I can still remember opening up the first few pages of Kavalier & Clay on my daily NYC ride up to Harlem for a long day of teaching. Mesmerized by the 1930s realism of a second World War approaching, paired with just enough mundane magic to incite a spark of childlike excitement, I’d count down the hours until I could escape into that world (in which Kav & Clay sought escape into yet another world) that Chabon had created for me. Ah, to be Brooklynite cousins creating super hero comic books. Then there was Chronic City with wild tiger on the loose in NYC, and Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I did a disservice in reading with scanning eyes, and the book Chabon took his first crack at Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and the many others I have yet to read.
And now, this: Brokeland Records in Oakland, CA. How does one describe the way in which Chabon can paint a canvas of characters right in front of our eyes? Masterful, I suppose. How does one do justice to the work of such a genius? Carefully.
With much consideration, I’ve decided that to know this book is to know its bright weave of characters. Below, I’ve included Chabon’s introductory descriptions of each of the many characters in Telegraph Avenue. Take a look at who they are and let me know who it is you think they’ll become:
Archy – “Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stone, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant flying tortoise of Japanese cinema.” (Chabon, 1)
Nat – “Nat Jaffe showed up for work under a cloud, like he did maybe five times out of eleven or, be generous, call it four out of every nine. His bad mood a space helmet lowered over his head, poor Nat trapped inside with no way to know whether the atmosphere was breathable, no gauge to tell him when his air supply would run out.” (Chabon, 5)
Mr. Singletary – “Their landlord, Mr. Garnet Singletary, the King of Bling, sold grilles and gold finger rings, rope by the yard, three doors up from Brokeland. He owned the whole block, plus a dozen or more other properties spread across West Oakland.” (Chabon, 6)
Rolando – “‘This here’s Rolando,’ Archy said. ‘I borrowed him from Aisha English. So far, he doesn’t do too much, but he’s cute. Now, Nat, I gather from one or two of your previous statements that we are fucked in some manner.” (Chabon, 7)
Mr. Nostalgia – “Mr. Nostalgia, forty-four, walrus mustache, granny glasses, double-extra-large Reyn Spooner (palm trees, saw grass, woodies wearing surfboards), stood behind the Day-Glo patchwork of his five-hundred dollar exhibitors’ table, across a polished concrete aisle and three tables down from the signing area, under an eight-foot binyl banner that read ‘Mr. Nostalgia’s Neighborhood,’ chewing on a Swedish fish, unable to believe his fucking eyes.’ (Chabon, 13)
Luther Stallings – “It was Stallings who came to a stop first, digging in, bucking his captors, turning to confront his redeemer. The familiar smile—its charm gapped and stained by drugs or prison dentistry or maybe only by the kind of poverty that would lead you to try to skirt an eight-dollar admission fee—put an ache behind Mr. Nostalgia’s breastbone.” (15)
Moby – “Moby was one of the noontime regulars. He was a lawyer, none too unusual a career path for a three-hundred-dollar-a-month abuser of polyvinyl chloride, except that Moby’s clients were all cetaceans.” (31)
S. S. Mirchandani – “…[T]he Enfamily [powder was] provided by S. S. Mirchandani from a deep, remote, and spidery shelf over at Temescal Liquor, which he owned.” (33)
Chan Flowers – “Chan Flowers came into the store. Slid himself through the front door, ineluctable as a final notice from the county. Straight-backed, barrel-chested, bowlegged. A model of probity, a steady hand to reassure the grieving, a sobe man—a grave man—solid as the pillar of a tomb.” (35)
Conchise Jones – “‘Say hello, you little jive-ass motherfucker,’ Fifty-Eight said. The voice was that of Cochise Jones, the unmistakable smoker’s croak, but way more irritable than Archy had ever heard Mr. Jones become. Everybody laughed except Chan Flowers.” (36)
Gwen Shanks – “Gwen Shanks was headed north on Telegraph Avenue, on her way to work a home birth in the Berkley hills, when she found herself off course by an unbearable craving in the cumin-scented gloom of the Queen of Sheba.” (44)
Elsabet Getachew – “‘Excuse me.’ said Elsabet Getachew with her husky accent, attempting with head lowered to slide out of the booth.” (46)
Aviva Roth-Jaffe – “Though Aviva had caught a thousand babies with hands that were steady and adept, now that it was time, she deferred to her partner…As Aviva gave way to Gwen, she tried by means of her powerfully signifying eyebrows to communicate that she felt something in this situation to be amiss, something not provided for in the birth plan, which lay sagging and looped onto itself under the little girl’s chair.” (53)
Vallette Moore – “Big-boned, shapely, on the fatal side of fifty, high-waisted, high-breasted, face a feline triangle. Beer-bottle-brown eyes, skin luminous and butterscotch, as if she herself had come fresh from the spray gun of Sixto Cantor.” (71)
Julius Jaffe – “Julius Jaffe was rereading his memoir in progress, working-titled Confessions of a Secret Master of the Multiverse.” (84)
Titus Joyner – “Titus Joyner lay on his back with a pillow mashed down over his face, held in place by the hook of his arm. That was how he slept: shielded. Titus from Tyler, in Julie’s imagination a sunblasted and horizon less patch of infinite Texas, a be romantic Dia de Los Muertos city of prisoners and roses, where Titus had been raised by a forbidding grandmother known as Shy.” (85)
What do you make of these characters? Where do you think Chabon will take us with them?