In the 2004 speech that made Obama famous, he asked America a question: "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?" As a novelist, Michael Chabon is preoccupied with fallibility and weakness and, in the broadest sense, infidelity — our chronic failure to keep faith with each other and ourselves. Over and over, his books tell the story of the huge bang, short half-life, and inexorable decay of our dreams. And yet they are more buoyant, more in love with life, than just about anything else in contemporary American literature: escape artists in themselves, utterly unchainable by cynicism or despair. Chabon knows that whatever you are building is about to fall apart, but he will hand you the glue gun and say "Go for it." Build and wreck and rebuild and re-wreck: That’s life, in the long view, and Chabon is a very patient man. Gonna keep on tryin’?/?Till I reach my highest ground.
This is Chabon’s answer, in literary form, to Obama’s question to America. He does not have a solution to the problem of human fucked-up-ness. He does not believe that progress is inevitable, or that injustice can be ignored, or that we can outsource our issues to a higher power. He just has the very rare ability to sustain a non-naïve faith in goodness: vanilla without the vanilla. That requires a different kind of audacity, and more of it, than putting the president of the United States in the middle of your book. What Chabon has, to kinda quote that president, is the chutzpah of hope.
Chabon's novel is centered around two record store owners, one white and one black. Tanner Colby surveys the skepticism of a white novelist writing about race:
"White person tackles race" shouldn’t have to be such a big deal. From Herman Melville to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Mark Twain to William Faulkner to Harper Lee, the grand American narrative of race was always tackled by white writers, writers who created and inhabited black characters as they would any other. … White writers are returning to the subject of race, and they are driven not by some ham-fisted, white-guilt social consciousness, as William Styron was, but from the realization that the story of race is their story, too. They’re not cultural carpetbaggers—they’re taking a long look in the mirror and assessing the impact of race and racism on themselves.
In an interview with Andrew O'Hehir, Chabon talks about growing up in a sort of suburban liberal utopia:
I grew up in Columbia, Md., which during the 10 or 11 years my family lived there tried and to a fair degree succeeded to be a very racially integrated, economically integrated, place where all were welcome. … And in Columbia I grew up surrounded by black kids. They were in my classroom, they were my friends, they were my enemies, they were my persecutors and my saviors and my girlfriends and my teachers and my school principals, and when I left Columbia, I rapidly discovered that the rest of the world wasn’t like that. It was a rude awakening for me. …
It’s what I heard Barack Obama, you know, when he gave that keynote address at the 2004 convention – what he was talking about, to me, was Columbia, Md. The America he was describing, was the dream of Columbia, the vision of Columbia, I had grown up believing in. And it’s a raft too. It’s Huck and Jim’s raft. It sometimes seems like a will-o’-the-wisp, but on the other hand it won’t go away, as a beckoning image of possibility or potential.