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Into the Void | RICHARD EDER

CALIFORNIA'S OVER. By Louis B. Jones . Pantheon: 330 pp., $24

September 07, 1997|RICHARD EDER

There are revolutions that devour their children, but it's a fast-food meal at best. Before long, it is the survivor children who do the devouring.

In Louis B. Jones' thoughtfully comic novel, the offspring of a famous Beat poet end up variously as a Sheetrock tycoon, a swimming-pool salesman and an indomitable mother. They turn their backs, that is, on the counterculture insurgency of the early 1960s. Even more combatively, they reject the ecological and flower-powered insurgency of the 1970s--in the person of a monster of manipulative benevolence: their mother's second husband.

Jones is not necessarily putting down revolutions and idealisms nor even, in particular, those of our recent past. It is their commodifying that he skewers: the passage from a motion of the heart to a motion of the gullet.

"California's Over" is only partly a political and social satire. Author of "Ordinary Money" and "Particles and Luck," Jones is one of our most subtle and least classifiable writers. He is after the elusive pivot point where idealism turns to self-display and power-hunger and where the humane impulse that originally nourished it packs up quietly at midnight and goes elsewhere. He is interested in courage, openness to life and the unpredictable refugee course that awaits anyone afflicted with such a pair of virtues.

In this case, it is the children of the poet, James Farmican, and eventually his widow, Julia. She is the keeper of her poet husband's flame and active partner to his ecological successor, but her enthusiasms carry mold-spots of doubt. By the end of this continually metamorphosing book, she is a woman who reluctantly has become herself.

The story is told retrospectively from the present, when the Farmican children are in their 40s. Most of it, though, recounts four days in 1972, when their revolt began. To sum up briefly:

Julia and Faro, her second husband, preparing to move to Oregon, are cleaning out their ramshackle mansion on the Marin County coast. She and James Farmican had lived there until he shot himself. (Or so it seems--the doubt is never quite dispelled.) Stuffed with junk and treasures, the house was a shrine to the dead poet and the other California Beats.

"Everyone knows California's over," Julia announces to the young man whom she hires to carry stuff out for the appraisers and auctioneers.

Faro, rich by inheritance and trend-spotter by greed, has bought a huge Oregon spread that he plans to turn into an ecologically and socially responsible ranch. There will be windmill power; also, if a few pesky details can be worked out, windup cars.

The winding would be done, via reduction gears, by the descent of a massive weight from a high tower. The weight would be lifted by an oxen team hauling on a windlass. Thus--though only in part--the unstoppable Faro.

Baelthon, the hired helper--a would-be novelist whose only fictional achievement is his own name--becomes part of the story and its narrator. He meets Julia's two disaffected children: Sean, a would-be poet mostly out of family conformity, and 16-year-old Wendy, who keeps a closet full of junk food to counteract the household's macrobiotics. Neither wants to go to Oregon, but neither knows how to resist Faro's manipulative high-mindedness.

Baelthon plays a part in the disruption that follows, not deliberately--he is as confused as everyone else--but by making love to Wendy and rousing her dormant sense of identity. The principal disrupter is Ed, a son whom Julia and James, in their days of Beat sublimity, had foisted off on a working-class family.

Now Ed turns up, as the household is shifting from one sublimity to the next, with a coat and tie, a business plan and a suitcase-full of canned food. (At 6% annual inflation, he figures, it's like earning 6% interest.)

Jones uses food as a wonderfully useful marker. The Farmican children have been starving on high-mindedness and soup (apart from Wendy's Cheez-Whiz cache). Julia prepares a seafood cioppino, and over the following four days of chaos and insurgency, she keeps reheating it, adding an old jar of miso paste to fortify it. She and Faro eat virtuously; the children with sour submissiveness. It gets darker and more loathsome: "Bacony," someone remarks with forced cheer by the third day.

Ed balks. To his steak-and-fries upbringing, seafood is alien. He watches clams and oysters bobbing in the murky liquid, "little yawns of death on an exposed reef." He charts the daily emergence of one particular oyster by its nicked shell. He sticks to bread and butter. Later, when Sean and Wendy join his escape from Faro's plans, they all head straight for Burger King.

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