Barack Obama is so famous he has transcended reality, and become a fictional character. Obama makes an appearance in Telegraph Avenue, the latest novel by Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The book takes place in Oakland, Calif., in the now-distant summer of 2004. Obama, still an Illinois state senator, but a national figure thanks to his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, has been dispatched to California to speak at $1,000-a-head fundraiser for John Kerry. There, he bonds with Gwen Starks, one of the few black women in the crowd, over a pick-up band’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”
The fictional Obama infers (or says he infers) that the woman’s husband is playing bass, and that someone close to him has died recently.
“I gathered that, something about a man named Jones.”
“Yeah, yes, he was supposed to be here, he played the organ. It’s Cochise Jones.”
“Cochise Jones, okay.”
Perhaps the name registered, a shallow footprint tracked in the sand of the senator’s memory. But the print might as easily have been left by Elgin or Philly Joe.
“He was supposed to be here, to play. It just happened, he passed this afternoon.”
“I am so sorry to hear that.”
"He was like a father to my husband.”
Somehow, easily, the band morphed into a cover of Bad Medicine’s “Trespasser.”
“Thank you for telling me that,” Obama said. “You know, I could hear it in his playing. Something grieving. But I didn’t know what it was.”
All politicians have tricks for bonding with voters, but this passage gives the inner-directed Obama more credit for emotional intelligence than he deserves – but not more than a Berkeley litterateur like Chabon would like to imagine he possesses. It’s also hard to imagine an ambitious politician pausing for three pages of soulful talk when there’s money to be raised. All fictional characters are reflections of their authors. And Obama, more than most politicians, is a reflection of his followers’ hopes. The fictional Obama will always be better, kinder, smarter and more empathetic than the real thing.
Obama is a big Stevie Wonder fan, though. In fact, he and Michelle talked about their love of Stevie’s music on their first date. So Chabon got that right.