The term gets attached to Michael Chabon like a perpetual baggage tag. No matter where the author ventures literarily, his passport is stamped “prose stylist.”
It’s true that Chabon is often fond of taking his sentences out for a lively swerving spin, letting the words purr as he shifts into higher verbal gears while simultaneously steering us toward precise pop-culture references until the whole high-flying passage feels like the Ferrari joy ride in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
That’s the gift of knowing you can floor your metaphors. But as Chabon can acknowledge from experience, sometimes it’s best to first know your terrain.
That was a lesson learned over years as Chabon mapped his way along “Telegraph Avenue,” his new novel, which he’ll discuss Sunday at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest Washington to help kick off the annual Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. (The 15-event celebration runs through Oct. 24.)
The story behind the story of “Telegraph Avenue” began in the late ’90s, when Chabon hatched the idea for a project but hit one slight obstacle: One of the most acclaimed novelists of his generation says he wasn’t qualified to write it.
“Telegraph Avenue” is set in his adopted home of California’s East Bay. Only upon reflection — after writing the concept as a script — did Chabon realize he wasn’t ready. He hadn’t lived there long enough to intimately understand the geography and social geology.
“At some point, I became worthy,” the Maryland transplant says now. “My familiarity with, and appreciation of, the place I was living made me more qualified to write that.”
Today, Chabon sounds grateful that this became the tale of the avenue not taken.
It was in 1999 that TV producers approached Chabon about developing a TNT series. He wrote a two-hour pilot, the producers approved it and things seemed on track until suddenly — as so often happens in Hollywood — they weren’t. So Chabon shelved the script and went about his career, which the next year would produce his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
That mothballed TV pilot continued to gather dust as Chabon crafted a string of well-received books, yet like an antsy offspring, the script refused to stay hushed. “So many times, over a long period of years — through ‘Summerland’ and ‘The Final Solution’ and ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ and ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ — I would meet somebody or hear a story and think: Too bad I never did that,” Chabon said recently by phone. “Too bad I never did that TV show.”
That lost TV show was set on a cultural fault line between Berkeley and Oakland — the shifting tectonic plates of neighborhoods long populated predominantly by whites and blacks, respectively, and long marked by a wide disparity in average income. As the District-born Chabon came to understand the social rhythms of his region, he decided it was time for “Telegraph Avenue” to resurface.
Then, however, came Chabon’s second miscue: He kidded himself that he could simply novelize his script. “It was a stupid thing to try to do,” he says. “There’s no real relation between a pilot script and a novel . . . . It just messed me up for two years and I had to start over.”
All those creative stops and starts, though, may have proved fortuitous. More than three years later, the finished result — in the form of a dense and textured narrative — has received mostly positive reviews.
What informs “Telegraph Avenue,” says Chabon, 49, is “the human response to the passage of time, and the destructive work of time. . . . Why do we look at Roman ruins? Because we are amazed as a species by the simple fact that something we made has survived.”
“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.
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/.