cover image California Gold

California Gold

John Jakes. Random House (NY), $19.95 (658pp) ISBN 978-0-394-56106-6

California, supposedly ``the world's paradigm of hope and opportunity,'' is Jakes's ( North and South ) setting for this moderately satisfying novel about Mack Chance, an underdog whose ascent from poverty to affluence is a classic American success story. Like so many ambitious dreamers, Mack, an indigent Pennsylvanian, arrives in San Francisco in 1887 determined to make his fortune. To his dismay, he finds hardship, violence, bigotry, lawlessness and a city caught in the stranglehold of rapacious Southern Pacific railroad tycoons. Mack meets two bewitching women--rich, emotionally unstable Carla Hellman and dynamic Nellie Ross, a reporter for W. R. Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. After striking oil and becoming an orange grower, Mack prospers, but is left heartbroken when career-oriented Nellie won't marry him. He impulsively weds Carla, with disastrous results, while alienating many influential men by championing liberal causes. With strong commercial appeal, the novel potently conveys the raw, irrepressible vitality of California, but the historical backdrop (especially the 1906 earthquake) outshines the conventional rags-to-riches plot. Jakes's impressive research, plus his lively depictions of Hearst, Ambrose Bierce, Leland Stanford, Teddy Roosevelt and others, enriches the story considerably. Literary Guild main selection; Readers Digest Condensed Book main selection; major ad/promo. (Sept.)