Jakes' 'Dreams' -- horse-drawn saga

June 28, 1998|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Sun staff

"American Dreams," by John Jakes. Dutton. 495 pages. $26.95. In the afterword of "American Dreams," best-selling author John Jakes gushes with enthusiasm about the tale he's just finished telling. "With this book," he says, "I happily engaged in writing a valentine to a group of people for whom I have boundless affection: all the men and women who pit themselves against the perils of the acting trade."

In addition, Jakes reports that he is particularly enamored with the era "1906 through 1917" that sets the stage for his latest saga. He has, after all, plopped his characters down at a time when horse-drawn carriages are sharing the rutted roads with puttering autos, when emergent films flicker frenetically in darkened theaters, when women begin to exert their independence, when war and prohibition loom like thunderheads on the horizon. Old world authorities and manners are in a fitful crumble. A new generation has seized the day.

Against this backdrop, we follow, in "American Dreams," the VTC travails and predictable triumphs of the Chicago-based Crown family, a willful, spirited collection of souls whose fortunes have been derived from brewing lager.

Our attention is drawn most closely to three young adults: frizzy-haired Fritzi, who is man-less, practically bosom-less and determined to succeed on stage; her brother, Carl, a Princeton dropout with an eye for technology; and their cousin, Paul, a photographer and writer who wants to change the world with his art.

Subtlety is not the point in the melodrama that unfolds. Fittingly enough, "American Dreams" has the slap-dash quality of silent films, full of effusive, excitable sentiments. Jakes' characters hop, skip and jump from one historical marker to the next, and even the dialogue often seems like an excuse for Jakes to exercise yet another research muscle, as when Paul, hired to get some publicity for the Model T, is being given a tour of the Ford factory, "Couzens led (Paul) down the hall past the main entrance. Not completely boorish, he pointed out things as they went along. 'Employment office. Our machine shop. Bar stock storage. In there we keep cushions, running boards, tops, steering columns. This is shipping. This is the electrical department - magneto assembly.'"

Woe abounds but the story never feels dangerous, and when something tragic does occur, Jakes neither tarries in the emotion of the moment nor lets his characters suffer long. Life goes on, one adventure follows another, the bad guys most assuredly lose and the good guys rise to the top.

You can't read Jakes without concluding that this former copywriter has a grand old time spinning his yarns. He mixes his fictional offspring up with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, making us feel as if we too have brushed our shoulders with celebrity. He introduces us to a grumpy Henry Ford, and we know that he1s smiling at us from behind the pages. Entertaining riffs abound through "American Dreams," and that indeed appears to be Jakes' purpose. But don't go looking for Big Ideas amidst all the Big Gestures. The sum here is no bigger than its parts.

Beth Kephart is the author of a recently published nonfiction book, "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage." She has published some 30 short stories and essays in the last five years and is the receipient of a 1998 Leeway Grant.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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