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John Jakes couldn’t write his way out of a chain letter, and he knows it: ”Sue me for not being Flaubert,” the former adman once said to a reporter. A titan in the family-saga genre of commercial paperbacks, Jakes rests his literary weight on the bottom line-12 consecutive best-sellers (his eight-book series, the Kent Family Chronicles, has sold 40 million copies); a $4 million deal for his last tome, the aptly titled California Gold; and a flourishing oeuvre of TV adaptations. His bloated success inspires hedged bets: Critics made ill by the cardboard characters and starched prose that Jakes cobbles into turgid historical melodrama tend to grant him the dignity of being, at the least, ”entertaining.” Homeland (Doubleday, $25), another trailer-trash epic envisioned as the first in a new trilogy, douses an 1890s German immigrant family in a bath of nostalgia. Noble Berlin urchin Pauli Kroner valiantly sails to Ellis Island, walks to Chicago to join his wealthy brewer uncle, survives labor riots and family dysfunction, wins-then loses-then wins back a fabulously wealthy and beautiful maiden, and embarks on a longed-after career in moving pictures. Oh, he also hangs with Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish- American War. Jakes nurtures this formulaic, by-your-bootstraps manual with all the delicacy of a backhoe. In his hands history devolves into good-guy-versus-bad- guy drivel. His America springs from the shallow well of civics class: ”I love that it isn’t wedded to the past, but always looks to the future,” says Pauli’s uncle, the industrious immigrant who makes good. ”I love the concept that all men stand on the same starting mark, with only their individual ability and ambition limiting how far they can go.” Such earnest speechifying might have elicited a chuckle were it not delivered with such a consistent utter lack of irony. As it stands, this Homeland doesn’t welcome the masses; it invites morons. D-

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