Michael Chabon’s new novel is all about nostalgia and the consequences that come of change, both threatened and realized. It’s also centered on that other favorite Chabon theme: friendship.
Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run Brokeland Records, a vinyl mecca of jazz, funk and soul lps located at the far end of the namesake avenue that connects Berkeley with Oakland. By now, 2004, much of that famous avenue has been co-opted by coffee franchises and corporate retail. Archy is black, Nat is white. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are dedicated midwives working together as the Berekley Birth Partners. Both Brokeland and Birth Partners struggle to survive in the 21st century. Those struggles strain the relationship between each set of business partners as well as the couples themselves.
Other couples complicate the story. There’s Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, the once John Shaft-like blaxplotation film hero, and his leggy, but aging co-star Valetta Moore. Luther exists largely in hiding –there’s something unseemly in his past — and his future is hooked on producing and starring in a new film. Then there’s Archy’s son Titus, who Archy has just recently admitting to have fathered. Titus is having a relationship with Nat and Aviva’s son Julie, a brother despite his name.
Into this mix come former NFL quarterback Gibson “G Bad” Goode, now an entrepreneur who want to build a Berkeley edition of his Los Angeles Dogpile Megastore, an extravagant cultural mall that will include, in addition to a multiplex theater, a giant vinyl record store. Goode, a man whose past holds more than football, has the support of councilman Chan Flowers, once Stallings’ friend. Flowers is anxious to find out where Stallings is keeping himself these days, something to do with the never-solved, Black Panther-linked shooting of Popcorn Hughes at the Bit O’ Honey Lounge in 1973. Add to this Pynchonesque cast, venerable jazz organist Cochise Jones and his musical parrot, a memorabilia dealer named Mr. Nostalgia, a feckless attorney and a couple toughs, and you’ve got more characters than you can follow in a plot that’s not as complicated as it sounds: if the megastore is built, it will spell the end of Brokeland.
That Chabon makes us comfortable in this tangle is a testament to his abilities. The book turns as smoothly as an old Issac Hayes lp, complete with pops and clicks. Chabon’s expert at making music meaningful to his story, as he does when describing the effect John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has on Archy. His dialogue is both smart and street-wise at once. He makes the most absurd circumstances work, as when Goode tries to sway Archy by taking him up on his private zeppelin.
Like Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer prize winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, this unlikely buddy novel makes retro a religion. Archy, the most troubled of the characters—caught cheating on his pregnant wife and failing all those years to mention that he had a son—finds salvation in a decades-old bakery’s signature pastry “Dream of Cream,” still good after all these years. The post-racial relationship difficulties seem uncomfortable in that race is never mentioned as part of the problem. The only ones who seem above all this color-blind nonsense, Titus and Julie, are from the next generation. When the story finally does wind down like a record to its last groove, it’s a disappointment; not because of the way it ends but because, like the last sweet sounds on your favorite album, it does.