OAKLAND -- One great perk of living in a literary paradise like the Bay Area is the opportunity to sit 20 feet from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and hear him or her talk about driving their kids' carpool.
On Oct. 16, author Michael Chabon will be spinning his yarns at the Montclair Presbyterian Church, courtesy of the church and Montclair Village's bookstore, A Great Good Place for Books. The paperback release of "Telegraph Avenue," the Berkeley resident's 2012 novel, is good reason to celebrate.
Chabon, a father of four children and an inveterate explorer of East Bay cities, will arrive on the current of a career that blasted off when he was still a graduate student, finishing his thesis at UC Irvine. The popularity of his first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," catapulted him to an early pinnacle. His subsequent short story collections, essays and critically-acclaimed books won him a devoted following. But what endears him most to Bay Area readers is that he is theirs.
At a December 2012 fundraising event, sponsored by online news site Berkeleyside to benefit 826 Oakland, a nonprofit tutoring organization, Chabon thrilled the sold-out audience with stories of home, family and the wonders of the East Bay.
The hobby shop in the basement of Ace Hardware on Berkeley's University Avenue and Cheeseboard Pizza are two of his favorite haunts, he said. Although he claimed people stereotype Berkeley and Oakland residents, he spoke endearingly of the pigeonholing, saying, "It's almost a tyranny of eccentricity." While working on his most recent novel, Chabon discovered nuances to the racial and economic divide forming a kind of cultural crust between the tandem cities. It's a theme he's explored before -- poverty jutting up against affluence -- and carries over into similar fissures he has found in racial, cultural, gender and generational differences.
"Telegraph Avenue" is the story of two friends, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, whose Brokeland Records implodes when ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode opens a Dogpile megastore within spitting distance of their establishment. Goode is the fifth richest black man in America and the stench of Big Box retail trails in his wake. Adding to the dismantling, the two vinyl-loving buddies have spouses who run the Berkeley Birth Partners, a midwifery enterprise. When a routine delivery goes wrong and Stallings pregnant wife loses her charm in a hormonal storm directed at an obstetrician, tensions escalate. And it doesn't help when the sudden appearance of Stallings illegitimate child -- a son he didn't know about -- opens a Pandora's box of romantic affairs gone bad, Black Panther secrets and other surprises. Chabon writes up a crowd; managing to be intimate and colossal, often on a single page.
Wrangling the herd of ideas and his signature detailed style took discipline, which Chabon maintained by writing from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. "You definitely miss out on things," he admitted. He listened to a 1970s soundtrack and avoided the Internet with "Freedom," an app that shuts off the Internet.
"I go online and the next thing you know, there's a spark plug website. Three hours go by. That's when I'm self-destructive," he said, laughing.
Chabon said his children (young in age) haven't read his books yet, but recalls their "involvement" one day, when a reader approached him.
"I was in a bookstore and a guy came up to me and said, 'I really like your early books, but then the later ones, right around when you started having kids, they deteriorated.' And my kids were there when he said it," Chabon exclaimed.
Reviews of "Telegraph Avenue" describe an alternative trajectory -- placing him astride a kingdom of riches and portending a fascinating storytelling hour by a famous writer local bookies can embrace as their own.