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Writers on Writers: Scott Hutchins Meets Michael Chabon on his Home Turf

Scott Hutchins hangs out in Brokeland with Michael Chabon.

“Behind Chabon’s geek-chic glasses with a fleur-de-lis on either arm are large, blue eyes that—for all his genuine affability—watch you closely.” (Shot on location at Stranded Records in Oakland.)

Yet, for all of the East Bay in Chabon’s life—his children, his friends, his home—there’s not much of it in his fiction. In his first four published novels, he does Pittsburgh, then Pittsburgh again, then New York and Prague, then alternate-universe Alaska. Telegraph Avenue, his most recent, is his first Bay Area book. He claims that this strange (disloyal?) delay has nothing to do with Berkeley/Oakland and everything to do with the vagaries of the project. “It started as a TV pilot,” he says, “that never got picked up.”

Their loss. Telegraph Avenue is a brilliant tapestry of a story, filled with intersecting character arcs, people from different classes and races, and much pregnancy and birth (which make for good TV, right?). The happenings revolve around Brokeland Records, a struggling vinyl temple on the border of Berkeley and Oakland. Brokeland is also the neighborhood, so astutely named that it’s hard to believe Chabon made it up. It roughly centers on the Temescal area of Telegraph Avenue, and there’s much to recognize in its portrayal. Temescal is chockablock with Ethiopian restaurants, and the Ethiopian drink suff plays a key role in the book. But the record store itself is entirely invented. “There’s a great place now—Stranded Records,” Chabon says. “But it came the same week that Telegraph Avenue was published.” Life imitates art.

In the book, Brokeland Records is what Chabon calls a “caravansary”—in other words, a meeting place, an oasis, a kind of neighborhood Timbuktu. But there’s a dark force on the horizon: the imminent arrival of a corporate music store, Dogpile Records, which, like the Tower Records of old, adds insult to injury by actually being good. One of the bittersweet pleasures of the book is watching the pitched battle between the two adversaries—neither of which, as we readers know, is likely to survive the Internet. In this way, Telegraph Avenue is a historical novel of our very compressed times. “I’m still inspired by the project of the 19th-century novel,” Chabon says. In particular, he cites Middlemarch.

“I wanted to give Brokeland, or the East Bay, or at least one corner of the East Bay, its due,” Chabon says. “I feel like San Francisco has, justifiably, gotten its share of literary attention. On this side of things, it’s Chez Panisse and Cal, the Oakland Raiders, and maybe Sly and the Family Stone and Tower of Power, and you’re kind of done. But there’s so much more to this area. I wanted to shine a little light on this side of the bay.”

Chabon mentions the work of Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver) and Eric Miles Williamson (East Bay Grease) as notable exceptions to the dearth of East Bay novels. “But there’s not a lot,” he says.

I say that I find the situation in San Francisco to be fairly similar—we have Tales of the City, of course, and The Joy Luck Club, but for a city that punches so far above its literary weight, there aren’t that many portrayals of San Francisco. Chabon quickly agrees. “There are a lot of writers associated with San Francisco,” he says. “But there isn’t a Bonfire of the Vanities of San Francisco. Or a Humboldt’s Gift.”

We puzzle over this conundrum.

“It might just be the distance from the New York publishing world,” he says.

We look outside. Late February, now well into the 70s. Today, it’s hard to regret that distance.

For a week now, I’ve been trying to place Chabon in literary context—he’s our Jack London, say. Or our Faulkner. Or our Maupassant. Witnessing Chabon’s ease in his Brokeland surroundings and considering his near-constant literary output, I come across the right pairing. Chabon is our Dickens. He must have 200 characters to his name, from all walks of life. He orchestrates amazing plots. He’s both literary and enormously popular. His writing is bold in reach and subject matter. He has a precise ear for the particularities that make American speech (in Chabon’s hands) so current and alive. Plus, he’s a family man. In the Victorian era, you could count on about half of your children attaining maturity, so Chabon’s four children are roughly equal to Dickens’s 10.

There’s only one problem. Chabon has lost his taste for Dickens.

Page three: Brokeland loves Chabon.