(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

California’s Over is the third novel by Louis B. Jones (following Ordinary Money, 1990, andParticles and Luck, 1993), exploring the early 1970’s as an era of lost ideals and cultural confusion. The novel is as much an exercise in social satire as it is an attempt to recapture the look and feel of an era that seems hopelessly remote. The novel shifts between 1997 and 1973, as the narrator, Steve (also known as Baelthon), wanders down the corridors of his memory, a trip prompted by the reappearance of a woman from his past.

In 1973, a seventeen-year-old calling himself Baelthon drives from his home in Wisconsin to the remote Northern California village of Seawall. There he answers a notice to help a family prepare for a move and finds himself living with the Farmicans, relatives of the late poet James Farmican, victim of a suicide three years earlier. As he begins sorting through the family’s belongings, separating for auction and for relocation, he becomes privy to the family’s deepest secrets.

While Baelthon is busy with his sorting, daughter Wendy worries over the disposal of her father’s ashes, and her brother Peter, a poetaster, fiddles with what he imagines is his magnum opus, a long poem about the Donner disaster, which he decides to transform into an opera. Julia, widow of the deceased poet, floats among the assorted characters who wander through the house, while her second husband, Faro Ness, spouts the dippiest peace and love platitudes with laughable earnestness. Into the insanity wanders Ed Pease, a child of Julia and James who was put up for adoption. He has returned to claim his share of the inheritance, a casino in Nevada that the poet won in a card game.

Faro has devised a plan to first revive James Farmican’s private church as a tax dodge for the estate, then relocate to the wilds of Oregon, where he will create a haven for disaffected sensitives escaping a nation bent on destroying its soul. Wendy and Baelthon begin a romance, and along with Ed and Peter they light out for the Nevada wasteland in search of the lost casino. Ed begins buying worthless property in anticipation of a gambling empire, but the casino turns out to be nothing more than a gaming permit and a couple of battered tables.

Peter runs up gambling debts he cannot repay, and a disreputable card shark decides to turn Wendy into a prostitute to erase the debt. Baelthon hits the road and vanishes from their lives until years later, when he is contacted by lawyers who inform him he is the father of Wendy’s twenty-four-year-old son. If he will claim that he and Wendy were married (an ersatz ceremony was performed years ago by Dean Houlihan) and will live with her and the boy, the young man can reclaim the family property according to a provision in the poet’s will.

At the heart of the novel’s concerns is the notion of family, hereditary or adopted. The Farmicans are a study in post- World War II dysfunctionality, with each member absorbed in his or her private obsessions. Father James is a minor, though nevertheless controversial, poet devoted to doomed political causes and often obvious commentary. Son Peter is a hopelessly inferior chip off the old block, while daughter Wendy is a seemingly ordinary creature concerned with typical adolescent anxieties—her appearance and acceptance by friends. Julia Farmican yearns to be understanding of one and all, while her new husband is a hilariously absurd caricature of a political and social liberal. Lost son Ed is completely outside the scope of Farmican liberality—he unashamedly defends capitalism, intends to profit from his family connection, and, although the least likely to succeed, ultimately manages to achieve financial security.

Baelthon appears to have no family because he is in flight from his origins and only accidentally stumbles into this collection of eccentrics. Although he tries to gain their acceptance, Baelthon has less sense of familial devotion than the Farmicans, and in his and Wendy’s son the legacy of dysfunctionality continues. Gabriel is another pretentious artistic poser who creates obscene political commentary by means of computers and laser images. Like his uncles, Gabriel resents—for good reason—his father, yet willingly uses him for a substantial financial windfall.

The issue of inheritance is crucial, and the idea of what is passed on permeates the novel. Ed stakes his future on the thin promise of a casino and ironically succeeds, not because of his gambling plans but because the worthless land he purchases contains rich deposits of alkali that are later used in wallboard, a commodity in sharp demand during a housing boom. Peter seeks to inherit his father’s house, talent, and most of all fame. Wendy covets her father’s ashes to give them a proper dispersal, yet is frustrated when they are misplaced...

(The entire section is 1982 words.)