Fourth Estate, $29.99
Telegraph Avenue is between the districts of Berkeley and Oakland in California. It's also the title of the latest effort from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, a rambling affair that strives to marry the miniature and the grandiose, the personal and the political, throughout its convoluted, multi-skeined narrative. It's 2004 and Archy (who's black) and Nat (who's white) are co-owners of a second-hand vinyl store called, portentously enough, Brokeland Records. Though their passion for soul-jazz and soul-funk is deep and true, their business acumen is unequal to their knowledge of hyphenated music.
It doesn't help when they learn that media mogul Gibson ''G-Bad'' Goode, the fifth-richest black man in the US, plans to build a music megastore two blocks away from their modest little shop. While the middle-aged dudes fight their David-and-Goliath battle against soulless capitalism, their wives, Gwen and Aviva, face legal action after a home birth they presided over results in an unexpected hospital visit for the mother and newborn.
Chabon obviously revels in wordplay, and studded throughout the novel are descriptions both startling and evocative: Berkeley in the summer reeks of ''old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat''; a goon's head is ''shaved clean as a porn star's testicle''. However, there are times when his prolix tendencies smack of self-indulgence. Towards the end, there's a sentence that continues for 12 pages, without full stops or paragraphs to impede its relentless flow. Depending on your stamina for expressionistic prose, this literal bird's-eye view of a talking parrot's flight across town is either exhilarating or exhausting.
There are many supporting characters on this busy street, including Archy's hitherto unacknowledged son, Titus, who, together with his deadbeat former blaxploitation movie-star father, Luther, make a surprising re-entry into Archy's already ragged life. Even youthful presidential aspirant Barack Obama is granted a token appearance, taking tentative first steps in the public arena against the hepcat strains of Nat and Archy's band, Planet of the Negroes.
In a book this dense and all-encompassing, Chabon has room to riff on all matters of discourse, including themes of race, class and sexuality, as well as the melancholy fate of bricks-and-mortar retailers. Perhaps to leaven any accusations of highbrow moralising, there are also pop-culture references to comics and cult films, not to mention the constant accompaniment of jazz, funk, soul and R&B easing the narrative along with its pulsing beats.