Free Fall : The Family That Flies Together . . . : DREAMING: Hard Luck and Good Times in America; By Carolyn See (Random House: $23; 368 pp.)

John Leonard, TV critic of New York magazine, media critic at "CBS Sunday Morning," and book critic for the Nation, is the author of "The Last Innocent White Man in America."

Imagine knowing that it's Thanksgiving because your Uncle Bob sets himself on fire. That it's Easter because you are in Las Vegas, where the Risen Christ is a topless dancer on a skating rink, performing "Spice on Ice." Your grandfather, who took most of his hunting-guide wages in whiskey, dies drunk in a snowdrift. Your grandmother blows her head off with a shotgun. Your mother, with a pint of vodka in her Bible, plays tag at night inside a high-voltage power station. Your father, under a life-size photograph of a naked Marilyn Monroe, churns out hard-core pornography. A stepfather's blue in the face from an overdose of Bromo Seltzer. A half sister deals dope. You married your first husband, the Eurasian with a Fu Manchu goatee, because he seemed as "lonely and freaky and sad" as you were. Your second, the blond Slovak with a spear gun and a snorkel, worked for the Rand Corp. when he wasn't smuggling Benzedrine and methamphetamines across the Mexican border. Your third, the sestina-writing professor of English whose parents were missionaries to China, is old enough to be the father who dumped you.

From age 12 on, says Carolyn See, "scorn was my career." Her family memoir is at once a history of generations of self-destructive behavior and a free-fall in the unbearable lightness of American being, the space-sickness of transcendence: Instead of a hundred years of solitude, a century of excess. Everybody goes up, like a gaudy kite. Almost everybody crashes, like a Hindenburg. The lucky few who bounce, after methadone and Alcoholics Anonymous, after therapy and jail, must puzzle the whys and wherefores: "Continuity. Stability. Civility. How do you even describe these things? What are the telling details?" Hand-rolled joints in the breakfast nook, rotgut in the crystal decanter, opium in the underwear drawer, acid in the naked foot, tarantulas after a thunderstorm, ice picks and Freon gas, PCP and flying shoes: "We could," See says, "have been abandoned kids in playpens. We were trying as hard as we could to escape our pasts; we couldn't see the future. We were inventing ourselves, but . . . running out of ideas." In memory, as if the abyss they had glimpsed were also a volcano, their young scorched selves have cooled to something petroglyphic: gargoyles, Icarus, Lucifer, Hanuman the Monkey King.

Not all of this is California's fault, though See devotes a witty chapter to "The Embarrassing Californianness of It All"--tripping out in Topanga Canyon on LSD or morning glory seeds, squash-casserole mandalas, earthquakes, surfing, tequila-sunrise R&R; in Mazatlan, and Leo Sunshine's New Age "affirmations," before Leo ran off with a bottle of Brut to the Pyramids, or "melted" through a jailhouse wall in Upstate New York, or was shot running drugs in New Delhi. Bohemian Los Angeles in the 1950s is deftly evoked--Kenneth Anger at the Coronet; young Communists at City College; Mexican abortions; Salvation Army nursery schools; reading "Tropic of Cancer" and Kenneth Patchen under a pepper tree; chatting up Zoroaster and semantics in a Cal State L.A. Quonset hut; going out, dressed in black, to the Haig or Shelly's Manne Hole, to listen to the modern jazz of Leroy Vinegar and a heroin-addicted Wayne Marsh. "Dreaming" also amounts to a topography of Southern California sprawl--from working-class Eagle Rock, at the end of the open-air trolley line, to Griffith Park and Westwood; from Big Bear poker parties to tumbleweed Victorville in the Mojave. There is even a Wild West breeziness about See's prose. While her own origins are working class, like such children of Hollywood money as Jill Robinson, Brooke Hayward, Carla Fisher and the late Johanna Davis, she will crack wise about the deepest wounds, as if, on the fault line of a convulsive culture, having flunked puberty rite and ultimate meaning, afflicted, after so much bloody butter on a crust of Dread, with the nameless blue-eyed willies, she will levitate by laughing gas.

But her father, for whom it was a "laid-down, absolute law that if you suffered too much you didn't have to work," came from Texas. Her mother, to whom it "was monstrous that anyone on earth should get what they wanted," came from New York. By the time they reached L.A., both were orphans. They chose each other, as Carolyn in her turn would choose Richard, Frank and Topanga, as her half sister Rose chose Ferenc, Michael and hell. Is this America's fault instead of California's? See thinks so, sort of. Hers is "a story of climbing--or drifting--out of the under class, into the working class and into something upper-middle or beyond. From the beginning . . . 'dreaming' in our family meant either the opium my grandmothers used--for medicinal purposes--or buying that 'lovely' home, starting the new business, getting married, publishing a book. Getting high, going up, in this society." She believes that "the government, consciously or not, uses every kind of anodyne to keep the middle and lower classes tranquilized, depressed, and dysfunctional." Drugs and alcohol "keep the underclass under."

It would be pretty to think so, like sunspots, bell curves, network television, original sin, demonic possession, the Mafia and the zodiac. Except that Siberian shamans, from the Stone Age on, partook of fly-agaric mushrooms. African bushmen painted Kalahari rocks under the influence of hallucinogens. Poppies probably account for the ornamental vases of the late Minoan period. Scythians enjoyed ecstatic vapor baths. And soma was crucial to the Big Veda and Persian carpet design. In Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, they chew coca; in Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, khat; in West Africa, kola nuts. My father sang tenor, drank rye and died young. My younger brother vanished into speed and acid, picking up signals from the Smothers Brothers in the fillings in his teeth. I've done time myself in smoke-filled 12-step rooms, with some bankers and some priests. Not all of this can be blamed on the CIA or the Trilateral Commission.

See knows better, really. Looking back, she even admits to missing some of "the wild life" and "blue smoke" of free fall, that delirious dreamlike float on the vapors, not only of alcohol, but also of journalism and the racetrack, advertising and the Ice Capades, pulp Westerns and Rams games, historical romances and mariachi bands, pornography and "Karmuppance": "It's ruined us, but it's helped to save us too. It's given us our stories." It certainly gave to See those tumbleweeds and ukuleles that she turned first into novels and then this flaming seraph of a book, which breaks the heart. Early in her childhood, her parents spend their weekends in the desert: "The drinking starts on Friday night and the atmosphere is festive. Sometimes the men jump off a garage with a beach umbrella as a parachute." Decades later, in that same desert, after four minutes of sitting on a metal horse on a manually operated merry-go-round, pedaling with her feet, See's mother Kate passes out and hits the deck. And the rest of the family, "from the same murky gene pool," snickers. Say hi (or "high") to gravity's rainbow.

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