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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Finding a Place of Life in the Shadow of Death : RECESSIONAL by James A. Michener , Random House $25, 400 pages


"Recessional" is about life among the elderly residents, living and dying, at the Palms, a Florida retirement home. Andy Zorn, a young obstetrician who has lost his license in a scurrilous lawsuit, is hired to manage it, with an eye to increasing profits.

He elects to drive from Chicago to Tampa in icy weather and near Chattanooga he is involved in a horrible multivehicle accident in which a young woman's legs are amputated below the knees.

Moved by his humane instincts, Zorn aids Betsy Cawthorne and probably not only saves the young woman's life but also her chance of walking again. This encounter leads to romance when she comes to the Palms for rehabilitation.

The Palms has three sectors: the Gateway, a residential home; Assisted Living, for residents who need daily care; and Extended Care, for those in need of around-the-clock care.

The intellectual core of the Palms is a group of four men who call themselves the Tertulia , which is Spanish for a salon-type gathering. They are a former senator, a Colombian editor, a diplomat and a college president.

The Tertulia amuse themselves and prove their daring and skills by building an full-scale airplane in their quarters, fitting it with an engine and successfully test flying it over the extensive grounds.

Zorn is ably assisted in his effort to make the Palms successful by his second-in-command, Ken Krenek, who knows the ropes and isn't ambitious to be the boss, and by Nora Varney, a huge nurse who uses her Alabama accent only when she wants to.

Zorn is doing well until he is challenged by Clarence Hasselbrook, a sinister agent for Life Is Sacred, a nationwide organization that opposes euthanasia. Hasselbrook has the ear of the press; he moves into the Palms to keep an eye on Zorn, and threatens to ruin him with a lawsuit for assisting in the suicide of Jaqmeel Reed, a terminally ill athlete. Hasselbrook also threatens to hang the nickname Murder Mansion on Extended Care.

He uses legal action to invalidate living wills by which hopelessly moribund residents can speed their escape. Finally, however, he himself is undone by John Taggart, head of the Palms empire of retirement homes, who tapes his threats against Zorn and the Palms.

Meanwhile, Betsy Cawthorne is progressing miraculously under a wizard therapist, Bernard Yancey, who has her fitted with artificial legs and soon has her walking. Betsy decides to make her "maiden flight" in the rehab gym before her father, Yancey and Zorn.

"Then with her confidence bolstered, she took a series of steps that were miraculously normal."

Zorn is dumbfounded, as is everyone else, but the reader has no doubt that this is the climax. Zorn's fate is sealed.

Later Betsy invites Zorn to her apartment and, after a couple of drinks, leads him to her bedroom. The reader is not introduced to the mechanics of their lovemaking, but has no doubt it was accomplished.

There is love between other couples as well, even when one has been afflicted with Alzheimer's, a disease that Michener explores in grim detail.

Berta Umlauf, who had the beastly job of caring for both her mother-in-law and her husband after they were stricken by Alzheimer's, says, "I can tell you better than anyone else that each of them approached death with no inner courage to make it a natural part of life, and no concern for those they would leave behind. I can only say that they died miserably and in ways that terrified both them and me."

When young Reed, the basketball star, lies dying of AIDS, he tells his doctor, "I've lost the battle. I've thrown my life away, and I want no aid, no sympathy. I just want to die."

"Jaqmeel," the doctor replies, "I respect you and I understand what you're saying. But you must remember that in this brutal game, we're on opposite sides: you try to die, and I try to keep you alive."

Obviously, "Recessional" is not the stuff of musical comedy. Its purpose evidently is to secure for the hopelessly afflicted the right to die, at the same time celebrating the miracles of modern medicine, as in the case of Betsy.

At the age of 87, James Michener seems preoccupied with the riddles of life and death. The Palms is a place of life, but it lies under death's shadow. We miss Michener's boundless zest for life in his earlier works.

Miraculously, like the Tertulia, he has built a cumbersome airplane, but it flies.


* Jack Smith's weekly column appears Monday in Life & Style.

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