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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Telegraph Avenue’

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TELEGRAPH AVENUEBy Michael ChabonHarper, $27.99, 468 pages

High praise alert: When it comes to creating vivid, memorable and "real" characters of any and all sexes, ages and races, no American novelist writing today can touch Michael Chabon.

Reviewing his last novel ("The Yiddish Policemen's Union") in these pages five years ago, I said, "There are many layers of interest here beyond the language and the story, such as the relationship between fathers and sons the war between the sexes, the world of chess and, especially, what Leo Rosten called 'the joys of Yiddish.'"

In "Telegraph Avenue," he doubles down on the first two themes -- the fathers and sons and the war between the sexes -- and instead of the world of chess he gives us two richly painted worlds, that of midwifery and of a used-phonograph-record store, while providing what can only be called the joys (and sorrows) of contemporary black life, Oakland, Calif.-style, circa 2004. As he closes in on the age of 50, the author's protean imagination seems to get deeper and richer.

Here's the scene on and around Telegraph Avenue. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, black and white respectively, are partners in Brokeland Records, a barely surviving business that serves as a neighborhood third place (neither work nor home, but a case probably could be made that Brokeland is a kind of secular church), a Cheers without a liquor license. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, also are partners. They co-own and co-operate the well-established and highly regarded Berkeley Birth Partners, and together they have "caught," to use the author's term, more than 1,000 neighborhood babies. What distinguishes the BBP from other midwives is that they have hospital privileges, but when a home birth goes awry and the fiercely and justly proud Gwen -- who happens to be very late into her own pregnancy -- goes off on a white doctor who insults her, their livelihood is in jeopardy.

Their husbands have an even bigger problem: Gibson Goode, former NFL star quarterback turned hugely successful entrepreneur, wants to include in his monster new multiestablishment development called Dogpile (slated to open down the street) a well-financed and state-of-the-art vintage vinyl record shop. That would spell bye-bye to Brokeland. In addition to this business problem, Archy has a domestic problem, thanks to his inability to resist the charms of women to whom he is not married.

But that's not all, folks. Enter 14-year-old Titus, who turns out to be Archy's never-acknowledged son from an earlier dalliance. Titus is angry and bitter as only a 14-year-old with a legitimate beef can be. To complicate matters even further, Nat and Aviva's son Julius, 15, who recently has admitted that he is gay, falls madly in love with Titus.

Jumping two steps up the generation gap, there also is Luther Stallings, former martial artist and movie actor, who has yet another semi-mad scheme to recover his lost career. All in all, the cast of characters is a very mixed bag. That Mr. Chabon can keep all these narrative plates spinning at the same time is a delight to see, and to read. Never, despite layer upon layer of figurative language and dead-on dialogues, does he forget where he's been or where he's going. It's a storytelling tour de force.

This is how he informs the reader that Archy and his father, Luther, do not get on: "Recently and unexpectedly, the fiber-optic cable between the continents of father and son had been severed by the barb of some mysterious dragging anchor."

Or, on Archy's existential dilemma: "He was tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions. Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat."

When Gwen ministers to a pregnant patient whose 19-pound weight gain is less than half of her own, Mr. Chabon writes of the patient, "She carried her pregnancy like a football tucked into the crook of a fullback's arm, invisibly and with aplomb. Whereas Gwen's belly was like some kind of Einsteinian force, warping the fabric of space-time as she moved through it. She was not, this morning, inclined to sympathize with Jenny and her nineteen pound shortfall of woe."

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" was a very funny novel that had readers laughing out loud every few pages. This book is no less so. In a September article about the specific origin of this novel, Mr. Chabon wrote, "And so, once again, as in ' The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,' as in 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union,' I found myself obliged, and eager, to recreate through fiction, through storytelling and prose, the lost utopia that never quite happened, that I never quite knew, that I have never since forgotten and that I have been losing, and longing for, all my life."

Get "Telegraph Avenue," read it, and enjoy.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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