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Storytellers: New in September

CALIFORNIA GOLD by John Jakes (Random House: $19.95; 640 pp.) : PILLARS OF FIRE by Steve Shagan (Pocket Books: $18.95; 372 pp.)

August 20, 1989|KAREN STABINER

Several weeks ago, a reporter on TV's West 57th Street did a feature about superchef Wolfgang Puck and his restaurant, Spago. Why Spago? Because, according to the glib narration, Los Angeles is too young a city to have any real landmarks. It's too new to have the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building; the city hasn't been around long enough to boast a St. Patrick's Cathedral. Hence, the West Hollywood restaurant as cultural icon.

An appropriate sentence for this journalistic felon? I suggest a tour of the Pt. Fermin Lighthouse, the Pellissier Building at Wilshire and Western, and the San Gabriel Mission, which has over a half-century on St. Pat's. Then, when he's tired, let's plunk him down in a comfy chair and force-feed him John Jakes' new novel, California Gold.

No history? Jakes' latest is so chockablock with background that he offers a historical precis at the start of each section of the novel, just to place his characters in the reality of the time. Pennsylvanian James Macklin Chance, clutching a copy of T. Fowler Haines' "The Emigrant's Guide to California & Its Gold Fields," sets off in 1886 to complete the quest that defeated his Forty-Niner father: He intends to make himself a wealthy Californian. His story becomes the state's story, specifically L.A.'s--of men who would kill over water rights, of overnight oil wealth, of scheming land developers and liberated ladies.

"California Gold" is, of course, full of the formulaic elements that define the best seller. Mack Chance has to marry wrong--for lust, not love--and suffer the hellish consequences before he wins the hand of the perfectly charming Nell, a Hearst reporter who appears for the first time when she plunges into San Francisco Bay to prove that the heartless Southern Pacific has taught its ferry captain to prize an on-time arrival over a damsel's life. He has to endure a hard-drinking embezzler of a real estate partner, the active disapproval of certain powerful Angelenos (including the Times ' Col. Harrison Grey Otis), estrangement from his son, and the eccentricities of the movie business. In a nice bit of irony, he has to face an unpleasant revelation about his prose mentor, Mr. Haines. Only then does he get his happy ending.

The fellow from "West 57th" could learn a lot here.

Steve Shagan, author of a half-dozen thrillers and the Academy-Award winning screenplay for Save the Tiger , prefers his danger up front, cold and threatening, and global in scope. In Pillars of Fire he looks ahead to 1992, when one of our favorite nuclear nightmares comes true: With the help of the requisite neo-Nazis, Pakistan makes nuclear warheads that will be shipped to Libya for attacks on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Israelis have to figure out how to destroy both the Pakistani bomb factory and the Libyan launch sites without starting a technological Holocaust--and their partner, a popular pairing in this kind of international adventure story, is a CIA agent, Tom Lawford, who conveniently is in the midst of a personal crisis over his double life as a deep-cover agent and a journalist.

The plot gets convoluted as Shagan introduces various side stories--thriller authors often write as though they wanted you to get an extra little thrill just from navigating the pages. But his position on Israel, which he believes is a combative nation by necessity, makes this a challenging read, even if it probably isn't the perfect gift book to send to Bob Dole.

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