Michener: The Last Four

That's "Last Four" re: the four I had remaining to read, not order-of-publication-wise. Let's take these in the ascending order of how much I enjoyed them. All plot summaries from the novel's respective wiki or Goodreads.


"The main action takes place over a three-day period in the fictional city of Toledo, Mexico in 1961. The occasion is the annual bullfighting festival, at which two matadors - one an acclaimed hero of the sport, the other a scrapping contender - are prepared to fight to the death for fame and glory. The book's narrator, Norman Clay, an American journalist of Spanish and Indian descent, has been sent to cover it, and over the course of the three day corrida, he reflects on the various strands of his heritage. The story focuses on bullfighting, but also provides insight into Mexican culture"

The last bit of that description is problematic, as sifting through the reviews of Mexico clearly suggests otherwise. As this reviewer puts it, "Most of the characters treated in detail are actually Americans, or Spaniards, not Mexicans at all. (It's) a good read but tells very little about Mexico." 

The same reviewer challenges some of the facts that Michener provides about silver mines and aspects of bullfighting. I am not in a position to call anyone out on either topic, so I'll give Michener the benefit of the doubt on both but I agree the novel is misnamed. One reviewer suggested cutting out 2/3rds of it and renaming it Matador - that's actually a pretty good idea. Another pretty much nails it: "The novel is not a 'history' of Mexico as the title and his past works might suggest. It's not my novel, but if it were, I'd have eliminated all the history on Clay's family, retaining just enough backstory to explain his split nationality. I don’t understand why Michener felt it necessary to invent the Altomecs when the Aztecs would have made a truer story. Likewise, the invention of Gurza * when there were so many real characters of his type to draw from."

Amen on these "Altomecs" - it's like writing a book on Plymouth Rock and inventing a composite tribe for all Native Americans. What's the point? I'm sure he had some reason, but there really should have been a chapter apiece on at least 4 or 5 different indigenous Mexican Indians. 

* "Gurza" refers to a rebel general in the Mexican Civil War. I actually didn't realize he was fictional, as the same character appears in Centennial. That kind of Dark Tower-esque overlap in Michener's work is a rarity.    

Mexico was abandoned by the author in his younger days (as recounted in My Lost Mexico) and much of it was re-purposed for other works, like Centennial. It was rediscovered among some other papers and reworked prior to publication, but when placed alongside his other multi-generational sagas of a people and a place, it comes up short.


"Spanning four and a half centuries, Texas chronicles the epic history of the Lone Star State, from its Spanish roots in the age of the conquistadors to its current reputation as one of America’s most affluent, diverse, and provocative states. Among his finely drawn cast of characters, emotional and political alliances are made and broken, as the loyalties established over the course of each turbulent age inevitably collapse under the weight of wealth and industry."

In its review of the novel ("The Facts Without the Feelings of Texas," November 1985) the Harvard Crimson called this one "a Texas-sized database with a soap opera fairy tale grafted on." Ouch! It's more or less true, although Texas history and trivia, even in soap opera fairy tale broad strokes, is pretty damn readable. I especially liked the sections on the war with the Comanche. As he did with the Sam Austin and Santa Anna section (lifting it into its own separate book, The Eagle and the Raven) that part might have been expanded into its own book and been given even more room to breathe.

The format of this one resembles Centennial: our narrator is the scholar called in to join a task force assembled by the Texas governor for the state's sesquicentennial. ("First order of business," he quips, "teach kids what sesquicentennial means.") Each chapter grows from one of the Task Force member's family history, or from the narrative recounted by one of the regional experts they speak to, and ends with the Task Force discussing things. This adds considerable page count to the proceedings, but when Michener commits to these sorts of layers of artifice, there's no arguing with him. I didn't find it fatally distracting, but the whole conceit could've been cut out pretty easily.

The various stories (Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, the Missions, the Alamo, the birth of the Texas Rangers, the Klan, oil, the women of Dallas) have been fleshed out better in dozens of other places, and you definitely get more of a sense of the place from the work of someone like Larry McMurtry or Willie Nelson (who even makes an appearance here). Not that I have my finger on the pulse of Texas or anything, just saying - here it's 60% the usual sort of observations you get from Michener, 20% Texas Trivial Pursuit, and 20% Dallas. Not a bad formula for entertaining reading but perhaps not the full-on Texas immersion course advertised.


"(This) sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier takes us through Alaska’s fierce terrain and history, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling present. As his characters struggle for survival, Michener weaves together the exciting high points of Alaska’s story: its brutal origins; the American acquisition; the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the arduous construction of the Alcan Highway, undertaken to defend the territory during World War II."

Now this one's more like it. It's still too long - I think it'd have ended much more naturally at the vote for statehood, myself. That would only shorten it by 100 to 150 pages, but my aim is not to just make it shorter but to tighten it up a bit, to maximize its impact. The post-statehood parts are still great reading, but perhaps Michener should've done what he did with Journey: excise this section and expand it into its own novel. 

Hell, that goes for any of the sections here, particularly the prehistoric stuff:

"When the wounded mammoth stumbled to her knees, blood streaming from many wounds, the three Chukchis leaped upon her with their spears and clubs and beat her to death. When she expired, they acted in obedience to procedures observed through thousands of years: they slit open her innards, sought for the stomach loaded with partially digested greens, and hungrily consumed both the solids and the liquids, for their ancestors had learned that this material contained life-giving nutrients which human beings required. Then, their vigor restored after the days of starvation, they butchered the mammoth, producing cuts of meat big enough to sustain their families into the summer. (Varnak) leaned against a low tree, panting like a spent dog, too tired to partake of the meat already steaming on the new fire. But he did go to the immense carcass, make a cup with his hands, and drink of the blood he had provided his people."

or any of the (comprehensive) Gold Rush or salmon industry sections.

"The saga of Nome ground to a stumbling halt. The Golden Gate Hotel burned again and was rebuilt. The glacier of frozen urine filled the alleys once more in winter and melted into the sea in summer." 

Nome in 2017.
Chilkoot Pass, 1898.

It works as one big saga, don't get me wrong, with a large cast of characters who criss-cross in surprising ways and well-chosen representative examples of Alaska's history and peoples. (And its geography). I just think it might have worked better as a collection of shorter Alaskan novels that expanded on each section. I wish I could have been the guy's editor for the last 20 years of his career; I'd have trimmed a lot of the fat (like Mexico) while getting even more books out of the old codger. 

I was reminded (again) of Centennial in a couple of spots, although this one foregoes any of the wraparound-narrator-stand/ Task Force stuff, but just in some of the ways Michener sets things up. The section with the government man, for example, who comes to the families in the Midwest suffering in the Depression and enlists them in the Matanuska Valley Colony, that "communist scheme of FDR's", brought to mind the very similar section of the drysoil farming migrants chapter of the Colorado book. But given Michener's approach and choices of subject matter, a certain amount of thematic overlap (farming, slavery, government, European and post-European impact on ecosystems, economies, and native peoples around the globe) is inevitable. 

And like Hawaii, the final section can be considered Michener-at-his-most-subversive in that it explores how even the Native Claims Settlement Act - designed to avoid the tragedies of the various Acts that ended the Indian Wars - created a bonanza for non-native lawyers who ended up owning much of the land.

Some fascinating history, memorable characters, epic landscape, and compelling questions for the future. I could've done without the lengthy sections from the salmon's POV, but hey. 

"'Jack London would've loved you, Nate.'
'Who's Jack London?'
'Never mind.'"

Two earlier covers compared to the re-issue:
classier but kind of generic or church-brochure-y.

"A partially autobiographical bildungsroman in which Michener's proxy, young orphan David Harper, searches for meaning and romance in pre-World War II Pennsylvania."

Here's one I didn't expect to enjoy but to my surprise liked very much. In Report of the County Chairman, Michener recounts how when he met then-Senator John Kennedy, the future President told him how much he enjoyed The Fires of Spring. When I read that, I thought perhaps JFK was just being a good politician - i.e. praising a lesser-known work of an author rather than the more visible one. But it occurred to me while reading that a man of JFK's generation could find an awful lot in Fires to relate to, even someone like Kennedy, whose upbringing and early manhood could not resemble Michener's/ David Harper's any less.

"In the last summer of his youth David had been like a reed at the edge of a marsh. Upon him played the last storms of September, and he bent with the wind. Soon the rains of autumn would come and he would be adrift in the full current out beyond the placid marsh, but for this one summer he was content to stay along the edges and to feel the thrilling winds of life upon him."

I also though of both Literary Reflections and The World Is My Home several times while reading, as familiarity with Michener's autobiography allowed me to see more easily some of the thinly-veiled autobiographical stuff, particularly how the classic canon of English Literature ("in the late 1920s, most American colleges were little more than outposts of England - pallid echoes of English snobbery and dress") quite literally saved him from the gutter. The canon - starting with the Trojan War and right up through Jude the Obscure and other things our enlightened scholars of today don't deem too terribly important - gave meaning and definition to the otherwise disorganized events of his (maybe all) youth.

I thought several times of my own youth while reading. Like JFK (though very much not like JFK) my own childhood was a far cry from Michener's, but the first stirrings of love and lust and English major-ness are probably more similar from person to person and generation to generation than we admit. 

"Now humans become shadows, as in a Shakespearean play, vague drifting things that tangled in one's heart." 

NEXT: The Best of James Michener - Fiction.
The author with Mari and Sheila Cronin.


  1. (1) Do they even have bullfighting in Mexico?!? I thought that was basically just in Spain.

    (2) Speaking of McMurtry, I strongly considered buying and reading "Texas" because it seemed like it might scratch an itch similar to the ones "Lonesome Dove" scratched. Never did pull the trigger on it, obviously.

    (3) If my life ever takes the sort of turn that requires me to have to slaughter some animal many times my size and then eat "partially digested greens" straight from its stomach, I'm out. Two bottles of sleeping pills for me, STAT!

    (4) "The glacier of frozen urine filled the alleys once more in winter and melted into the sea in summer." -- Eww.

    (5) "I could've done without the lengthy sections from the salmon's POV, but hey." -- You know, this is an idea I just ... didn't expect to encounter to today. But I'm glad I did!

    (6) God, I love that Bantam cover for "The Fires of Spring"! The Corgi one, less so.

    (7) I can write the biopic now (even though it'd probably be a lie). James Michener, young war vet and inveterate cocksman, roams the country breaking hearts ... until his own heart is broken and he turns for solace to a life of scholarly exploration. Count them Oscar nominations!

    (8) "the first stirrings of love and lust and English major-ness are probably more similar from person to person and generation to generation than we admit." -- I'd imagine so, although Michener didn't have the advantage of growing up with The Cure. He was emo-ing out to opera!

  2. (1) It seems to be solely associated with Spain in the popular imagination, but nah it's big in lots of places. Mostly Spanish-speaking/cultural countries, but in southern France, too.

    (3) and (4) I'm with you on these.

    (7) That's the general sweep for sure, with some fascinating interludes of carny-grift, fortune-telling, and sundry publishing houses.

    (8) Ever since I read that bit about him and opera from THE WORLD IS MY HOME, I've been reflecting on this sort of thing - the various ways such music shapes our romantic indulgences. I'm glad we had the Cure. And hair metal. Equally dramatic and generating-of-unrealistic-expectations.