He’s got swagger: Michael Chabon at Greenlight Bookstore

1. Writer Natalie Keller Reinert heard Chabon earlier in the day on Leonard Lopate’s radio show and skee-daddled over to Greenlight Bookstore. 2. Bob Russell (left) spent 30 years in San Francisco and is looking forward to adding Telegraph Avenue to his collection. He also loves reading Chabon — among the other 120 books he averages a year. He totally puts me to shame. Chris Russell tagged along (right).

Michael Chabon is just like us. He cooks. He picks his kids up from school. He drinks coffee and buys records. He gets distracted by the Internet. (FYI: he uses the Freedom app to get himself back on track).

At least that’s what he’d have you believe. I almost bought the song-and-dance as Chabon aw-shucksed his way through a reading at Greenlight Bookstore on Monday night. He was there to promote his latest novel, the much-anticipated Telegraph Avenue, set just around the corner from his home in Berkeley where “all there is to do really is drink coffee and chat.” I say I almost bought it, but then he began to read, and I remembered that Chabon was no mere mortal. I remembered that while he might try to tell me he struggled for years to write each book, the truth is that once his struggle is complete, expressions of that frustration come out like this:

“His dreams had always been Houdiniesque: they were the dreams of a pupa struggling in its blind cocoon, mad for a taste of light and air” — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

1. Greenlight Bookstore at capacity. 2. Ellen Cunningham is a huge Chabon fan who accidentally got off at the wrong subway stop and stumbled upon this reading.

Chabon has always danced between high and low brow interests, and this book is no exception. Set in a used record store in Berkeley called Brokeland in the present day (“I was relieved that I could just go to the grocery store and hear something and turn it into material,” said Chabon, “rather than having to translate it into Yiddish first”), Telegraph Avenue tells the story of Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, best friends and proprietors of the store. One is black, the other white, and the story encompasses race, family, sexuality, gentrification, politics, jazz, funk, comics, kung fu, and a talking parrot.

1. My view of Chabon as I shoved through the throngs of fans.

Chabon read from a section where a minor character — an old man with an electronic voice box — insists “you got to be hip to [Vincente] Minelli,” and he talked of Minelli’s effect on Tarantino and Scorsese. As Chabon’s language tumbled out of his mouth, I was again reminded that Chabon could write about everything and anything and manage to impart to his readers the same enthusiasm.

Maybe he is just like us, in that he lives in a world where high literature and kung fu collide, and that’s what makes him so incredibly appealing, but what I, and the other hundred people crammed in that bookstore, knew to be true was this: Chabon’s gift for language is simply stunning; his style and swagger is infectious. Watching him talk I couldn’t help but think of Christopher Walken as Bruce Dickerson. In the Saturday Night Live skit about Blue Oyster Cult, he says:

Easy guys… I put my pants on just like the rest of you — one leg at a time. Except once my pants are on, I make gold records.


— Cassie Hay is a regular contributor to Electric Literature’s The Outlet. Her reviews and essays have been published in New Letters, The Literary Review and This Great Society.

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