The Michenerpalooza continues. This project lacks a snazzy name for itself. I considered Michener: Impossible, but that doesn't quite work. If you think of one, let me know.
Couple of things I've picked up on along the way:
- Michener was over 40 when his first book Tales of the South Pacific was published. (Giving hope to all of us unpublished writers this side of 40) This means he looks like a retired guy even in the earliest author's photos.
Mostly, he looks like he does in the header up there - like he's been checked out of the nursing home for a supervised visit with the grandkids or something. Who cares, right? Not me. I'll read a bunch of nursing home geezers if I damn well please! (And still to come in my Michener queue: Recessional, a late-innings novel set at a nursing home. Awesome.)
- Michener was 36 when he joined the Navy in World War 2. That meant he was fairly well-advanced into his career as an educator when war broke out. The early years of any writer endure and inform all of his or her subsequent work, but I hadn't realized the extent to which Michener's first career informed his second. Even the most dramatic of his novels reads, in some fashion, like a lesson plan. He makes it work, but once you see it, you can't unsee it.
- Which makes me think he may have an interesting second wind (and a vast headstart) when holographic-educational-content starts becoming a thing. It's all there for the educators of the future. Why bother creating all new content for historical-holograms for so many time periods when Michener already laid it out and added dramatic stuff to keep the student's interest as well as all the Teacher's Notes? When society starts cranking that stuff out, Michener is well-positioned for a re-appreciation.
Okay, so here's the latest ten Micheners I've read, in no particular order. (I'll undoubtedly rank all of them at the end of this project, so I'll save it for then.)
Legacy (1987) is "basically a civics lesson more than a novel, an extended essay with walk-on characters" according to here. It's padded out with an excerpt from Alaska (published the following year) and with the complete text of the US Constitution. This latter addition occasioned some snarky commentary from the LA Times in its review of the book. Understandably, but it makes a certain amount of sense given the novel's construction: the Constitution is the equivalent of the maps or family trees common to other Michener books.
Set during the Iran-Contra affair, this one follows Major Norman Starr over the course of a weekend as he frets over his forthcoming appearance before a congressional committee to testify about his involvement in covert military actions in Nicaragua. We never learn what those covert actions were, only that it involved a great deal of money, though none of it stuck to his fingers, as he tells his wife. Or as the Times summarizes things: "While (his lawyer) holds lengthy meetings with the best legal minds in Washington, Starr and his wife remind each other of the Starr ancestors. Their reminiscence is a novelistic device that limps."
The LA Times is probably right, not just about the limp of this device but in its negative assessment of Legacy overall. As the reaction of a man of Michener's generation to Oliver North and the Iran-Contra hearings, it's interesting; as the insights of a writer as accomplished as Michener, it feels more like an outline than a fully-realized text.
It's amazing how cyclical American history is, though, isn't it? The same scandals, the same personalities. Take this, for example, written from the perspective of Daniel Shays:
"(We demand) only simple things: a larger supply of paper money with which to pay their heavy debts; an end to courts' throwing honest men into bankruptcy and jail; and general freedom from the oppressive government of the rich. (The Constitution) was written by rich men for the protection of their wealth. They keep their slaves. The western lands on which so many of them gambled jump in value, making them all richer still. * Their manufactures are protected, and every article in the document favors them and oppresses us. The poor farmer gets no relief, so the Constitution by rich men for the rich should be rejected."
I was going to name some of the folks that sounds like in 2017, but you can fill in the blanks with whomever comes to mind. It's not just 2017, though, is what I'm saying. A fixed range of positions and counter-positions seem hard-wired into the American experiment, and we will likely always sway back and forth between them.
* As Michener points out (or has one of the Starr ancestors point out) most of the signatories that speculated in western lands were actually ruined or greatly impoverished by it.
Originally I'd planned to cover this one in its own separate post, but it just got to be too much. So I'll just bullet-point it:
- I was looking for a broad strokes history of the Caribbean and this did the trick, most definitely. And it made me add two books to my library queue: Island in the Sun by Alec Waugh and Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier.
- I rarely see Don't Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk on any Suggestions for Further Caribbean Reading. (Thunderball or Dr. No, either, for that matter; what gives? I kid. Sort of.) Am I mistaken in thinking that's a good book? Perhaps the more seasoned Caribbean reader sees that one as small potatoes, since I never see it making any lists.
- Michener sometimes doesn't bother trying to hide his author-stand-in characters. Or rather, he takes explicit pains to distinguish his stand-in characters from himself with irrelevant details. The effect can sometimes be like watching someone with an obvious disguise try to make it less obvious by adapting a fake-Dracula accent. I'm reading his Centennial now and it's even sillier there, at least from the first chapter. Why bother in the first place? Anyway, "Michael Carmody" gets the honors here, an Irish teacher on Trinidad who appears in two key chapters to glue other characters/ events together.
- Brutal stuff. A fitting companion to:
Similar to the above, I wanted the one-stop-shopping for South African history. And got it. And how!
Michener alluded to the ominous rumblings of aprtheid and its attendant police state apparatus in Rhodesia and South Africa in the '60s Mozambique section of The Drifters, but here he lays out the whole kit and kaboodle. It traces an arc of spacetime from the ancient Bushmen of the Kalahari to the arrival of the first Dutch (and related misadventures in Java) and English in the region, to the Boer Wars and subsequent rise of apartheid.
As with Caribbean Michener tries to find a positive note on which to end after so many centuries of subjugation, war, and racism, but, unlike that book, there wasn't much bright light to seize at the end of the 70s in South Africa. That makes this one somewhat anticlimactic, which is the risk the historical fiction writer runs when venturing into the present. But he does an exemplary job setting the reader up to understand all subsequent events in SA. (As well as ones still playing out.)
'Which of your books comes closest to the traditional English novel?'
'I think The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It’s a beautifully handcrafted little novel. I could probably write one of them a year, and I might be better off if I had. But it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t my form.'
That excerpt (from here) elicited an "a-ha" moment for me. While reading Toko-Ri i was aware of how different it seemed from Michener's other work. Was it just the compressed time frame, low page count, early-in-his-bibliography aspect of it? Or something else? The end reminded me a little of a mid-century writer trying to shake off Hemingway's influence, but other sections like this -
"Harry Brubaker, who was about to soar into space with a freedom no previous men in history had known, was loaded down with intolerable burdens that at times he felt he must suffocate, just as many citizens of his world faced with a chance at freedoms never before dreamed of, felt so oppressed by modern problems and requirements that they were sure they must collapse."
- pointed the way to later Michener, this sort of long-view juxtaposition, an approach I very much like. Here's another one:
"A communist bullet no bigger than a man's thumb, fired at random by some ground defender of the dump, had blundered haphazardly into the turbine blades, which were then whirring at nearly 13,000 rpms. So delicately was the jet engine balanced that the loss of only two blade tips had thrown the entire mechanism out of balance, and the grinding noise Brubaker heard was the turbine throwing off dozens of knifelike blades which slashed into the fuselage or out through the dark sky. Like the society which had conceived the engine, the turbine was of such advanced construction that even trivial disruption of one fundamental part endangered the entire structure."
I can see where Michener is coming from with this one - perhaps he was following a formula / found structure that he never felt comfortable using. But I found it to be quite an agreeable read. A traditional war novel (made into what sounds and looks like a rather traditional war movie - I haven't seen it, though) whose setting the author returned to years later in a memorable stretch of Space.
Getting assigned Chesapeake my senior year in high school put Michener on my radar - this was 1992 and his star was just starting to fade, I think; my class might've been the last at my high school to be assigned any Michener - but it was reading Hawaii 15 years later that made me a serious Michener fan. This book is a revelation of fascinating history, human drama and passion (and incest and intrigue) and all sorts of American and Pacific history. It might lose a little at the end - Michener can sometimes hit a bumpy patch in the last bit as he ties together many generations of plotlines, but he lands the plane.
Some have criticized it for starting too far back in time with the volcanic creation of the islands - i.e. Michener getting carried away with his niche. I sympathize, but I think it works. The genesis of the islands (and their isolation) and how that shapes the characters of its inhabitants is evoked well by starting things off like this.
|Made into two films, no less. The one on the right is hard to find, though.|
Great stuff. This was the book that explained to me how the feds hold native lands - in Hawaii just as they do in the continental US - in trust and what that means. If for only that reason, this book is Michener at his most subversive, as such an understanding will forever transform your idea of something like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and why it exists.
This is not an autobiography, although he did write one. (The World Is My Home. In the words of Woody Boyd, "I'll get to it, Sam.") It's more of an annotated version of his literary c.v. as well as some remarks on those writers and educators and book collectors who influenced him in his early Swarthmore days.
Michener's is about as old-school-English-majory as it gets in his tastes (Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, etc.) and at several times reading this I felt completely illiterate. Of the authors discussed, I'm familiar with only one (Hemingway). I enjoyed this very much, though, and added both Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Marcus Goodrich's Delilah to my queue.
One anecdote re: the perceived antisemitism of Goodrich's work stood out to me, probably because I was reading Exodus concurrently:
"I have learned to my sorrow that readers tend to attribute to the writer of a book every expression of opinion it contains, even those voiced by characters obviously intended to be unsavory; this is one of the burdens of writing. So I was prepared to excuse Goodrich as being the mere author of those passages, and not their philosophical sponsor, especially since he later describes the deaths of his two Jews, Mendel and Schiff, as acts of great heroism. But even when I granted this concession, the totality didn't seem right, and I reflected that Goodrich was in the Navy during those years when it was fearfully anti-Semitic; one Annapolis yearbook printed the graduating photograph and record of its lone Jewish midshipman on a separate page with no printing on the back and perforated so that it could be torn out.
In this way the young officers could own classbooks undefiled by Jewish taint."
Uh, wow. That reminds me of something Harold Loeb wrote about Hemingway's fictionalized portrayal of him (one of American literature's most honest depictions of blatant antisemitism) in The Sun Also Rises. He barely noticed; blatant antisemitism was "unremarkable for that era."
One of the sections deals with how as a young man Michener tricked his way into seeing the famed Barnes collection and how, once that notorious philanthropist learned of the ruse, he spent the rest of his life showing up wherever he was and heckling, along with a paid retinue of professional protestors, basically making his life miserable.
One last thing - Michener was in his last few years when putting this together and in between the various sections includes some reflections on his life in verse. These aren't to my taste, truthfully, but I found this couplet that closes the novel ("Weathered Wanderer") to be a fitting epigraph for the artist:
"Imagination roams at little cost /
and visions once perceived are never lost."
This nonfiction compare-and-contrast between Sam Houston (the raven) and Antonio López de Santa Anna (the eagle) is a quick, great read. I knew little about either man, so it was all new to me. Originally written as part of Texas but cut from that novel and published by State House Press (with some great illustrations from the late great Charles Shaw) at the insistence of his former secretary.
Almost as fascinating as the two men is the intro, where the author describes an incident from his youth where an old farmer pounded rusty nails into a tree which had stopped producing apples. The old-timer explained this was an old farmer's trick to remind the tree that it wasn't dead yet. Sure enough, when Michener came by again, the tree was back to producing apples. He goes on to explain how at age 80, life had pounded a few rusty nails into him (quadruple bypass, dental rebuilding, permanent vertigo, a new hip) and the subsequent surge of activity this inspired. Over the next 3 years, Michener produced ten new works, two of which (Alaska and Caribbean) were of substantial size. Very impressive! More on this momentarily.
This non-fiction collaboration with A. Grove Day recounts the adventures of several real-life South Pacific personalities, from the mutineers of Bligh's Bounty to the most notorious pirate of all (Coxinga, whose exploits make even the worst of the Caribbean pirates seem like pan-and-scan knock-offs of the real thing) to Bully Hayes to that famed drunken painter of Polynesian black velvets Edgar Leeteg and more. Fantastic read, fascinating history.
My wow-I-had-no-idea moment came during the Bully Hayes section. I've heard the term "blackbird" a thousand times but had no idea to what it referred or how it related to the American War Between the States. Harrowing stuff (a common reaction when peeling back the veil of history.)
Originally written as part of Alaska, it was cut from that novel and published as this standalone story. With that background you'd be forgiven for thinking this isn't a substantial work, but actually this is one of Michener's best. All of the themes in which he specialized coalesce wonderfully here. And if you're looking for another Michener specialty - writing about bastards in an engaging and sympathetic way, so much so that you barely even notice the author's contempt for the personalities and/or behavior he's describing until it's all over - look no further.
The plot is simple enough: a British aristocrat (Lord Luton) assembles some relations and a crew and sets out for the Yukon, planning to get there via the Mackenzie river then cutting across the divide and floating downstream to Dawson. Luton's plan has the advantage of a shorter distance than other routes, and, by avoiding any crossing over into the United States, no import/export fees to surrender. But after spending two brutal winters in the Arctic Circle and losing all but one man (the Irishman who plays a pivotal role in Alaska) Luton realizes his own arrogance is responsible for all their hardships. An epilogue shows Luton as a hardened minister of rations in World War One. ("What do you know of real hardship?" he asks any who complain.)
Interestingly enough (as revealed in the Eagle and Raven intro) in the 60s, when he and his wife were only in their late 50s, they deemed themselves too old for the rigors of an extended Yukon trip. In his 80s, many years later, and faced with the prospect of never writing the Canadian book he always wanted to write, Michener took the trip as a widower. Not a bad bit of business for an old geezer.
I mentioned this one in passing when I posted my Books I Read in 2016, along with Michener's Space. I declined to touch back on Space for this list - why this one? Mainly because as cool as Space is, this, barring Michener's reinvention as the ideal content provider for holographic educational content for classrooms of the future, will likely be his best-known work in years to come. Possibly Hawaii but this has a foot in that most permanent of genres: lightly fictionalized war memoir.
One particular detail has stayed with me more than others - that of the nurses on many of the islands occupied by the Americans. Because nurses were allowed to date only officers, that left them surrounded by hundreds of thousands of GIs far from home, many of whom formed rape gangs that lay in wait in the shadows of all the roads leading to and from the hospital. If the nurses had protection, they'd attack these men first and leave them for dead before assaulting the women. These were the enlisted men, NCOs and camp followers of the American effort in the Pacific.
And that was how nurses - i.e. white (mostly - applied to the nonwhite ones, too, of course, who also had it worse in dozens of different and equally-and-awfully-ironic ways) American volunteers - were treated. History is the nightmare fuel that keeps giving, muddying even that most sacred of narratives (i.e. the greatest generation defeating fascism.) South Pacific manages many such feats.
WW2 was the Punic War of our time and in the same way they're still making movies about Rome and Carthage, people in the year 3017 will be reading and watching the Allies storm the beaches at Normandy and Iwo Jima. Books like Tales of the South Pacific will be as indispensable (and hopefully just as accessible) then as now. Surreal, tragic, heroic, moving, just about everything - this is a genuine and well-deserved American classic.