“Telegraph Avenue” centers on the lives of two survivors: Archy Stallings, an African American bassist who owns the endangered Brokeland Records, and Nat Jaffe, his white and Jewish audiophile friend who also runs the store. As they collect and sell used vinyl, they also peddle the past — the crackling tracks plugging into powerfully recalled memories. The novel’s DNA is a double-stranded history; it’s set in 2004, but flashes back to the “Kung Fu Fighting” blaxploitation ’70s. (For many of the novel’s telling details, Chabon says he largely trusts his memory of the Me Decade.)
“Telegraph Avenue” pulses with the themes of parenthood (Archy is a father-abandoned son who abandoned his own elder son) and the clinging to artifacts (albums are curated obsessively) as a buffer against the cold hard truth of marching time (Archy and Nat’s waning vinyl livelihood is threatened by a planned media superstore).
It was in the nonfiction ’70s that Chabon’s own father told him — en route to the old Geppi’s Comic World in Catonsville, Md., home of future four-color artifacts — that the boy’s parents were separating. (The father moved to Pittsburgh, where Chabon would spend several months each year when not in Columbia with his mother.)
Chabon recalls other key moments from his youth acutely. It was in 1977 that Chabon went to his first rock concert: Queen and Thin Lizzy at Cole Field House. It was also in boyhood that his grandmother would schlep him to “the fabulous ladies’ lounge” to use the spotless restroom at the former Garfinckel’s Department Store on F Street NW; a Borders later sat on that site, until it, too, disappeared.
Amid such ever-changing landscapes and soundscapes, Chabon questions what is timeless. Much of the funk and soul he name-checks in his novel, he says, sounds dated, utterly of its technological time. (Led Zeppelin, he notes, is one of the few pop-music acts that register as timeless to his ear.) And even the emotional response to music is different; the hard, physical graffiti of album covers and liner notes helped albums engage all our senses, he says, while digital media typically engages only one sense at a time.
“What we are losing is a loss itself,” Chabon says. “How we encounter the past” is lost.
In conversation, though, Chabon does not dwell on the bittersweet nostalgia of loss. Looking forward, he says that he and his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman (“Bad Mother”), are developing a series for HBO titled “Hobgoblin.” And in an outcome that brings “Telegraph Avenue” full circle, he says the novel has been optioned with “serious talk” of it becoming a TV series for HBO. (Chabon, for the record, can picture Wendell Pierce of “The Wire” and “Treme” as Archy.)
After more than a decade since having to abandon the project he sired, the man behind “Telegraph Avenue” now sounds like an especially proud parent. Even like one who has spent long, worthy years on his own kind of neighborhood watch.
JEWISH LITERARY FESTIVAL
Opening Night: A talk with Michael Chabon;
Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m.;
Washington Hebrew Congregation; 3935 Macomb St. NW; $25; $20 for seniors and students; $50 VIP (front-row seating and priority book-signing); presented by the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts;
1529 16th Street NW; (202) 518-9400 http://washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/literary/jewish-literary-festival/.