Friday, March 30, 2012

The Legend of Telegraph Avenue, or - why Michael Chabon is more powerful than a locomotive

Booksellers may not have many perks - besides being in an industry with such growth potential - but when perks do come along, they're pretty much outstanding.

Last Sunday, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association hosted their annual Spring Fling.  You got your seminars, you got your authors signing books, you got your free food (never underestimate how powerful the lure of free food is to your local bookseller).

For me - for many - the highlight was hearing Michael Chabon speak.  We're lucky to have this Pulitzer Prize Winner in our midst (and if you haven't read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, please - just go do that, ok?  We'll talk later) because to hear Mr. Chabon talk is to listen as a master storyteller reveals some of his secrets.

We don't give enough attention to Master Storytellers.  When they do receive it, say when a Master Storyteller is lauded on the cover of Time magazine, instead of celebrating Jonathan Franzen's coup - instead of acknowledging that one of their own was actually recognized for being a terrific writer - other scribes carped and caviled.  Their complaints?  Often their complaints came down to - It shoulda been me.

That kind of well-reasoned argument will get you thrown out of most bars.  Folks?  Can we keep our eye on the ball?  We live in a world that doesn't often descry the power of wordsmiths.  So how about a Bravo before you sharpen your knives?

Sorry, I have a tendency to wander afield.  This was supposed to be about Michael Chabon, Master Storyteller.  Supposed to be about last Sunday in the Presidio.

The grass was still wet from an early morning rain, but by late morning?  The sky was a brilliant San Francisco blue, that blue highlighted against the whitewashed buildings of the Presidio's Main Post.

There were more than a hundred of us gathered there.  Undoubtedly, some had been drawn by Mr. Chabon's appearance, to hear about the novel he has coming out in the Fall.  He began his remarks by saying that whenever he has a new book, there are a few questions he'll always be asked.  One of the most popular?

Where oh where did you get the idea for the book?

And he told us that what he wants to say is - I don't know.  What he wants to say is - I just started writing.  But that doesn't satisfy readers.  They need more than that.  They need a Legend.

(I'm beginning to paraphrase Mr. Chabon.  This is akin to me singing Only the Good Die Young some late night at the Mint on Market Street and expecting you to hear Billy Joel.  You ain't never going to hear Billy Joel.  Never ever.  So you aren't going to get Mr. Chabon's nuance, his poetry.  What you have is me.  Apologies all around.)

You'll let me paraphrase, then?  Mr. Chabon says we need the Legend - need to hear how Moses drifts down the Nile in an ark of bulrushes, how Uther Pendragon beds his enemy's wife and sires Arthur, how Superman came from Krypton.  Because of this need, instead of telling us - I don't know where I got the idea - he'd tell those gathered in the Presidio on that Sunday morning how his new book, Telegraph Avenue, started. 

And so the Legend begins.

Mr. Chabon told us about one of his favorite used record stores in the East Bay, Berigan's on Piedmont Avenue - that iteration of the store long gone, but then a going concern.  He described it as being like a bar that didn't serve drinks - with people who'd belly up to the counter and talk music.

Then he told us about the day the verdict for OJ came down, and how he didn't understand the celebrations that the Not Guilty was met with in some communities.  And not that he just didn't understand it - how he couldn't even fathom the thinking behind anyone delighting in an outcome that left so many incredulous.

He said that made him think of growing up in Columbia, Maryland - a planned community that was socially, racially, and economically diverse.  So much so that he remembers thinking during Black History Month that the people being celebrated were his heroes already.  He didn't need to be reminded of the contributions made by - and here I have to admit that I didn't recognize the names he rattled off.  One of the names may have been Dr. Charles Drew, but honestly - I was waiting for Sojourner Truth.  For Harriet Tubman or Jackie Robinson.

My embarrassment in admitting that I recognized none of the luminaries he mentioned dovetails with Mr. Chabon's wonderment, the wonderment he experienced when he realized he couldn't penetrate the point of view of an individual who cheered when OJ Simpson was declared not guilty.

What would his twelve-year-old self think of the thirty-two-year-old Michael Chabon who counted virtually no African Americans among his friends?  He was pretty sure - twenty years on - that the twelve-year-old would be unsparing in his condemnation.  Maybe those friends could have shed light where all - for him - was dark.

And that takes us back to the record store.  A store that usually had a black guy and a white guy behind the counter.  A store that attracted a diverse clientele who were drawn by the music - mainly jazz.  Berigan's customers knew they could go there and talk to whomever came through the door about some obscure track, some treasured piece of vinyl.  And it was this, what, fellowship?  Camaraderie?  Whatever it was, Mr. Chabon thought, would be a great background for - well, something.

And so then that takes us to the TV pilot he penned for TNT.  But before it could even be looked at, TNT had a bomb with one of their first ventures in original programming.  Maybe Crusade?  A Babylon 5 spin off?  Of course a television show about the denizens of Telegraph Avenue wouldn't get a chance to succeed if a show about the Drakh - an alien race intent on killing everyone on earth with some kind of disease that'll conveniently give earthlings five years to figure out how to cure it - bombed.

I mean, right?  I wouldn't green-light a literate show by a celebrated author after that either.  Makes perfect sense.

But if you're still with me - and Lord knows, I've given you ample opportunity to jump from the Excalibur (that would be the ship you see right up there - you know, Humankind's last chance to survive the evil Drakh!) you'll see that this just all goes to the creation of the Legend - the Legend of Telegraph Avenue.

The Legend entails the ghost of that pilot for TNT haunting Mr. Chabon.  The Legend describes giving that ghost new life as a novel - but taking years to do it.

The Legend therefore requires a lot of walking.  Walking through Berkeley and Oakland neighborhoods - walking along Telegraph Avenue.  Those walks will be with the lovely writer Ayelet Waldman - who just happens to be married to Mr. Chabon.  During those Plot Walks, Mr. Chabon will express discouragement, will profess that Telegraph Avenue is dead, maybe felled by the nanovirus set loose by the Drakh.  When Mr. Chabon would awaken from the beat-down administered lovingly by his wife, he'd be at his desk and so would continue doing the only thing he could do - keep working on the Avenue.

And I've completely left out the midwives.  How could I have not mentioned midwifery?  And the knowledge that Ms. Waldman gleaned when she and her husband began their parenting journey?  And since she learned everything about midwives, it would make sense that her education would nourish him, too.  And that he would find a connection between the midwives - her passion - and the record store - his.

And that - most importantly - this all made perfect sense when Mr. Chabon described the Legend to us.  Because, see - that's what storytellers do.  Take disparate threads and weave them into a coherent whole.  If this hasn't been that - coherent - don't hold it against Mr. Chabon.  Remember, I'm not Billy Joel - more's the pity. 

You'll do me a favor, yes?  You'll call your local independent bookstore when the leaves are changing, when Summer fades into Fall?  And you'll ask to be put on the list for the release of Telegraph Avenue?  Because if you'd been lucky enough to hear the Legend, you'd want to learn more.  You'd need to find out what happens on the street where you live.  Because that's what his Avenue is, really.  It's where you live.

So, Telegraph Avenue.  By Michael Chabon.  This September.

Trust me.


  1. Hey Piano Man! I hope the book is as great as it sounds. I've loved his previous novels and I'm chomping at the bit for his next! Those little perks make everything worth it...

  2. Set aside a copy for me!

    By the way, I caught sight of Mr Chabon and his lovely wife on Telegraph recently (at the Fox taking in the musical stylings of Wilco).

  3. Tracy, Jeremy - we're all chomping, and that's a good thing. Jeremy, I had a friend at the Wilco show - I'll have to ask if he was aware of the celeb in his midst!