Portrait of the Artist
as a Horny Old Man

You all remember James Michener, the celebrated author of best-selling doorstops. Once he found the magic formula – around the time he published Hawaii in 1959 – he eased into a comfortable pattern: every other year he published a massive book with a one-word title (Iberia, Centennial, Chesapeake, etc.) that somehow tied together geology with the parade of humanity across the planet.

James Michener

It went like this: Begin with the creation of the universe. Discuss the rocks and their formation. Two-hundred pages later, tell us about the people living on the rocks thousands of years down the road.

It worked. Michener was the master of the blockbuster and his books festooned coffee tables in the more fashionable American homes.

But it was a hard schedule to maintain, particularly as he got older. Eventually, he began employing ghost writers to rough out chapters in these books. He became the president of a company, James Michener, Inc. And that’s how Matecumbe came to be.

Michener wrote this short novel in the 1970s. His editor at Random House didn’t want to publish it because it didn’t fit the profile. The public wanted big books from Michener. A slim little love story would look out of place on the coffee table. So Michener gave the Matecumbe manuscript and the copyright to one of his ghost writers and it landed in the hands of the University Press of Florida.

Expectations could he high. After all, before he discovered his doorstop formula, Michener wrote shorter and more intense books. His Korean War novel, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, clocked in at around 85 pages. It was a tightly focused story of a man torn between family and duty. One is tempted to cart out the coveted descriptor “lyrical.”

Alas, I have read The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Matecumbe, you are no Bridges at Toko-Ri.

The concept is good: parallel love stories of a mother and daughter, told across the decades. The execution is another matter. The dialogue is cloying and not-for-one-minute believable. The characters talk at each other – very much like stage dialogue – and there’s no depth to the story. The afterword makes claims that Michener intended it as an allegory. If so, he fired and missed.

As an afternoon’s reading, Matecumbe is more entertaining than a soap opera, and it’s probably something that completists need for their Michener collection. Still, it’s kind of weird, having explicit and unendurable sex scenes appearing in a Michener book. It’s like finding out that grandpa’s into porn.

Collectors of Florida novels will enjoy the setting in the Keys. For the rest of us, it’s mere footnote or curiosity.