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THE SATURDAY READ

Michener, short and slight

Matecumbe A Novel James A. Michener University Press of Florida: 166 pp., $21 paper

September 22, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

JAMES A. MICHENER, dead 10 years, has a new novel out, a two-generation love story called "Matecumbe." It's not much good. But the story of its publication is, like a car crash, hard to ignore.

The short version is this: The author was in his 60s and at the peak of his fame when a writer-researcher he was working with introduced him to a young woman named Melissa, who lived in the Florida Keys. Michener, nearly two decades into his third marriage, launched an affair with the woman and started spending a lot of time in the Keys. Though the relationship ended after several years and Michener stayed with his wife until her death in 1994, the experience and setting apparently provoked him to write this story -- which his publishers at Random House rejected.

After that happened, we are told in an afterword, Michener gave the "Matecumbe" manuscript and copyright to the writer-researcher, Joe Avenick, a veteran journalist who had worked for Michener from 1973 to 1978. Avenick brought "Matecumbe" to the University Press of Florida, and now we have this 158-page curiosity.

Set mostly in Islamorada and Pennsylvania, the narrative alternates between two love stories. In one, Melissa, a divorced young woman from Pennsylvania, falls for a handsome, single cop while on vacation in '70s or '80s Florida. They draw close, make plans to marry, face a crisis, resolve it. Meanwhile, the other plot follows a poor, divorced mother in Pennsylvania about 30 years earlier -- Melissa's mother, we soon realize -- as she meets a kindly, single banker, they draw close, marry, face a crisis, resolve it.

They are sparse plots, carried forward by prose of striking inelegance. Consider, for instance, this interior monologue of Melissa's:

"It's always been so easy for me to relax in warmer weather," she told herself. "I have no doubt that these balmy breezes can wash away some of the pain from my divorce. I'll just forget the boat collision from last night and get on with my vacation. Who knows? Maybe some handsome stranger awaits me this week, among the smiling music of tiki bars and the controlled merriment of singles fun in the sun." It's true that Michener was never renowned for his dialogue. But in his most fully realized works -- which made him the most successful teacher of geography to Americans in the 20th century -- it's better than this. Further, in Michener megabooks like "Hawaii," "Caravans," "The Source," "Centennial" and "The Covenant," readers are soon enveloped by centuries of history and cultural context, assiduously researched, adeptly digested, shrewdly recast. None of that here.

Still, for readers who know a bit of Michener's biography, there is another cause for hope in the early "Matecumbe": The focus on a poor and fatherless family in small-town Pennsylvania mirrors Michener's youth. But this novel (novella might be more appropriate) is no autobiographical unburdening. The details don't particularly resonate, the insights don't arrive.

Perhaps Michener, who professed great admiration for Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," was experimenting with simplicity and allegory here. But readers may be excused for suspecting that there's actually more drama in the book's provenance than in its pages, beginning with the role of Avenick the assistant.

A former sportswriter, Avenick came to work for Michener as a researcher on the volumes "Chesapeake" and "Sports in America," as well as on some magazine pieces. Avenick says his work amounted to a role as ghostwriter, a contention given credence by Michener biographer Stephen J. May. (In his 2005 book, "Michener: A Writer's Journey," May cites under-recognized efforts of Avenick and another Michener researcher, Errol Uys, and accuses Michener of "two scarlet literary crimes.")

This angle makes Avenick's afterword to "Matecumbe," which outlines the tale of the real Melissa and the manuscript, a notable piece of writing. Avenick tells us that Michener wanted him to have and make use of "Matecumbe," that he remained friends with Michener to the end, and that "Matecumbe" is a rescued and revealing gem, every word of it Michener's. Yet Avenick was instrumental in raising questions about Michener's authorship of his own works, and now stands to profit from a book he's publicly describing as a literary consequence of Michener's infidelity as a husband.

Oh, and the book is being released in Michener's centennial year. Nice work all around, everybody.

--

christopher.reynolds @latimes.com

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