He still has the touch at 85

Monday Book Review

November 08, 1993|By Lawrence Freeny

MEXICO. By James A. Michener. Random House. 625 pages. $25.

IN "Mexico," James A. Michener's newest novel published last year but still widely available, portions of Spanish and Mexican history are interspersed, a Greek chorus of sorts, while the author again demonstrates his skills as storyteller, researcher, entertainer and observer of humanity.

The predecessor of the new title was "Alaska," published four years ago. These two are among a baker's dozen novels sharing a similar format: a story line that is enriched and embellished through detailing the chief characters' relevance to historical happenings that may span centuries.

"Mexico" concerns Norman Clay, a journalist who is sent to Toledo, Mexico, to cover a climactic appearance by two celebrated matadors. Clay's pre-fight dispatches to his magazine in New York include profiles of the contestants for a mythical world title: the handsome, smooth-talking Mexican, idolized by thousands, opposed by a stocky, bowlegged, barely literate Indian.

Mr. Michener's technique is to take us on excursions into history, including a notation that the mission of Hernando Cortes, the Spanish soldier who conquered Mexico in the 16th century, was "the salvation of Indian souls."

The fascination bullfighting holds for its fans is interpreted in part through Clay's conversations with matadors, and with avid followers of the sport who include a fictional Mexican sportswriter. There's abundant detail on the matadors' training, courage and skill, their subtle gestures in playing to the stadiums' throngs and their deferential salutes to the fighting spirit of the animals.

Clay complies with a request by his magazine's executives that he show Toledo's sights to two wealthy Oklahoma oilmen and their party. When they prepare to return home, one's daughter Penny, 17, demands to stay a bit longer; a mature friend agrees to chaperon.

Penny insists on meeting one young matador, "a real hunk," and the sportswriter disperses several groupies to make the introduction. But her rash intention to accompany the matador to his next fight in another city is sidetracked: The sportswriter threatens to publicize any such escapade, and the matador bids Penny a courtly farewell.

Mr. Michener's sense of propriety, and the maturity of his perspective at 85, may be reflected in Clay's thoughts on the young woman's aborted fling: He'd often observed groupies' "noisy assault on celebrities, and the speed with which they would hop into bed with anyone who would let them astounded me. I abhored the lot. They were an insult to womanhood and an embarrassment to our nation."

Nettled by his role as tour guide during a working assignment, the journalist rediscovers his Mexican roots. He finally decides to quit the magazine's globe-trotting duties and to live in freedom in Toledo.

Mr. Michener began writing "Mexico" in 1961, when he completed 10 chapters and an outline for the remainder. He then put it aside in his Pennsylvania home. The unfinished manuscript was found 30 years later by the author's former housekeeper and bookkeeper, Virginia M. Trumbull, and he completed the work.

In "Mexico," Mr. Michener maintains his ability to entertain and inform. The book's considerable length -- like that of the first, "Hawaii," in 1959; "Centennial," in 1974, and "Chesapeake" -- is unlikely to dissuade readers, long-standing or new.

Mr. Michener's age has certainly not diminished his zeal to reassert his workmanship.

Lawrence Freeny is a Baltimore writer.

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