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Desire Under the Oranges : DISOBEDIENCE, By Michael Drinkard (W.W. Norton: $21.95; 349 pp.)

August 29, 1993|Laura Kalpakian | Laura Kalpakian's most recent novel is "Graced Land" (Grove Press, 1992)

Scratch the surface of any futurist and there you'll find rank nostalgia. Even in Orwell's classic "1984," the hero descends into the lost proletariat world, a downright hipbath of nostalgia--things judged inefficient by the State but lovingly described by the author, with musical accompaniment provided by the nursery rhyme, "Oranges and Lemons." Oranges and nostalgia play a major role in Michael Drinkard's novel "Disobedience," which projects into the future, hungers after the past, and fancifully reconstructs one of Southern California's most enduring legends, a story probably still retailed to Southern schoolchildren.

I heard this story in the fourth grade: Luther and Eliza Tibbets single-handedly founded the California citrus industry because every night around 1880, Mrs. Tibbets threw her dirty dishwater on a struggling navel orange tree planted in their yard. The tree still stands at the intersection of Arlington and Magnolia in Riverside, complete with brass plaque and iron fence.

Michael Drinkard (a Redlands native) also probably heard this story in the fourth grade. He has taken fanciful liberties with Mr. and Mrs. Tibbets, so "Disobedience" is not a novel for historical purists. He's moved them to Redlands and done away with the prosaic dishwater. In the novel Eliza saves her tree from drought by slitting the throat of the family pet, a Great Dane, then burying him close by for fertilizer.

The Tibbets, however successful with citrus, are personally infertile. Drinkard chronicles their many attempts to conceive a child and their rise to financial prominence. Eliza herself takes President McKinley on a tour of their vast citrus holdings during his 1900 visit to Southern California. Like many another Southland couple, Eliza and the President get down and get dirty in the groves. Thus is conceived Frances, eventual grandmother to the appealing airhead, Mavy Tibbets.

Mavy's husband, Franklin, is the novel's central figure. He connects (if this is not too strong a word) the major story strands: Franklin's own young life, the Tibbets' tale, and that of Franklin and Mavy's eldest son, Aaron, a teen-ager circa 1998 in well-to-do Redlands. The Tibbets/Wells clan is hyperbolically dysfunctional.

Drinkard is at his best chronicling Franklin's misadventures. A would-be yuppie graduating in the early Reagan era, Franklin lusts only after a five-figure salary escalating logarithmically. He works for Solvtex where he has enemies and competitors, no friends, and where sex and ambition merge in the book's liveliest sequence. Drinkard is savagely funny on Silicon Valley and Reagan-era values. Counterpointing Franklin's yuppie life is his unwilling courtship of the completely unplugged Mavy Tibbets, whom he meets in biology class and (two years later) impregnates by virtue of a faulty Baggie.

One more generation later, this child, Aaron, and his clique of Redlands teen-age friends engage in all sorts of mayhem, none of it very entertaining, most of it merely obscuring Aaron's central obsession: Did Franklin kill Mavy? She disappeared when Aaron was only four and his younger brother (pathetically disfigured by being born during an Information Tsunami in San Bernardino County) was a baby. Aaron's only recollection of his mother is on a laser disk of his own birth, shot by his father, mostly of his mother's rear as she rocks back and forth during labor. Forbidden to watch this, Aaron naturally disobeys; when his father comes in, he switches with the remote control.

Indeed, the remote is the book's central metaphor. Lest you miss this point, it is also the design logo, signifying a switch in stories. Halfway through "Disobedience" the reader longs for more remote control than the author has provided. When Mavy and Franklin become parents "Disobedience" lags; its wit and humor evaporate. The story threads are not so much woven as switched back and forth, as an insomniac might sleepily flip through the channels. "Disobedience" even has its own little infomercials spliced throughout, the whole presided over by an Orwellian rock star, Amazonas, whose video image flickers everywhere.

Though Drinkard has rooted his novel in the Inland Empire, it's not about place. Though he has waxed on about the multiple dysfunctions of the Tibbets/Wells clan, it's not about family. Though sex scenes abound, it's not about sex. It's not Aaron's story, nor Franklin's nor Mavy's. The novel is about time. The deepest relationship in "Disobedience" is between the medium and the message. Drinkard's remote control prose zips along at frenetic pace; he is his own information tsunami, and he writes with tremendous zest. Swiftness is all.

And so it seems odd, at the heart of this MTV-paced narrative, to find prose lingering with those characters who actually have memories, long misty passages about Marcus Welby and Joe DiMaggio advertising the original Mr. Coffee. Oddly out of sync with the novel's nervous energy are long, still moments in tide pools. "Disobedience" is finally a nostalgic novel, wistful about the old orange groves, about the old bones buried there, rooting through the old chest of memories, reaching for the vanished past.

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