Desperately seeking Disney's land

July 10, 1994|By Paul Nussbaum | Paul Nussbaum,Knight-Ridder News Service

Southern California has long been the end of the road, as well as the end of the rainbow.

It is notorious for being the last stop for drifters, misfits, malcontents, wing nuts and Looney Tunes. On the far edge of the continent, thousands of miles from the East's hidebound centers of convention, Southern California's endless summer and boundless optimism have made it an eternal magnet for dreamers and speculators.

A fair sampling of the breed is on display in "In Cahoots," a fanciful yarn about a gaggle of Orange County pals who, in 1953, try to figure out where Walt Disney is going to build his amusement park so they can buy a piece of the real estate first.

These dreamers have failed to get rich with earthworms, doughnuts, parakeets, minks and an outdoor ice-skating rink. But it's not the quality of their schemes that motivates them so much as their enthusiasm for each in its turn. The dream's the thing.

This time, they're convinced that they have the biggest and best dream ever. So they throw themselves into their search for Disney's half-acre with characteristic fervor. They ricochet around old Southern California, bouncing off oddballs and charlatans at every turn, skittering into scenes and subplots that never quite add up to a fully realized tale.

Most of the gang of dreamers that people Malcolm Cook MacPherson's novel can charitably be described as eccentric. But they don't quite make the grade as charmingly eccentric; they're just plain old garden-variety weird.

Only Callum, the 10-year-old son of head dreamer Bud, seems to have a grip. From his vantage on the fringes of the scheme, he watches the adult zaniness with a sympathetic eye, even as he pursues his own treasure hunt.

Mr. MacPherson, a former reporter for Newsweek, grew up about a mile from the orange grove that became Disneyland. It shows. The best part of his book is the evocation of post-World War II, pre-theme-park California.

His schemers wander a landscape of bean fields and orange groves, laid-back, small-town living that is ancient history now, buried under freeways, malls, housing developments and, of course, Disneyland. Bud and Callum and the rest visit Knott's Berry Farm when it's still little more than an overgrown roadside stand but still the premier attraction in town.

They frequent Garden Grove, where people "came for the bank and the day-old bread at Wonder, and the five-and-dime and the feed store, but they conducted their business and left. Garden Grove did not have a pool hall or a bar and grill to hang out in."

"In Cahoots" is almost worth it just for its glimpse of that vanished place in that vanished land. But as a vehicle for good reading, it comes off the tracks a few times too often.

Title: "In Cahoots: A Novel of Southern California, 1953"

Author: Malcolm Cook MacPherson

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 288 pages, $21

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