Michener Tries Parable : JOURNEY : by James A. Michener (Random House: $16.95; 246 pp.; 0-394-57826-0)

Let's begin with the good part. About a third of the way into this brief novel, around Page 80, one has a sense of being inside an old-fashioned but beautifully maintained narrative machine, the storytelling equivalent of, say, a "cherry" 1950 Rolls-Royce. It was here the reviewer, a first-time James A. Michener reader, began to have intimations of the novelist celebrated by an enormous international public. Michener builds a paragraph with a stamp all his own, frequently incorporating exchanges of dialogue that work seamlessly within it. "There are writers, and there are storytellers," a friend once put it, "and Michener is a storyteller, and a very good one." Around now in the narrative--and for some time to come--that seemed to state the case fairly.

"Journey" is the story of a doomed expedition to the Klondike in the Gold Rush period of the 1890s led by an iron-willed 40-year-old British nobleman, Lord Evelyn Luton. He is accompanied by three English aristocrats: an adventurer contemporary, and two younger men, both Oxford educated, one of them Luton's nephew and the other the nephew's friend, a young poet. Along with these four is a lower-class Scotsman, a gifted salmon poacher whose savvy as an outdoorsman and devotion to his social superiors make him the group's utility man.

Does Michener have in mind atomizing the British class system, watching the old empire at work in the microcosm of the expeditions? This question came up around midway. Then, as the men live through a long Northern Canadian winter in a wood cabin they've built themselves, and manage to do it without major upheavals, even growing fond of reading aloud to each other in the evening from "Great Expectations" and "Palgrave's Golden Treasury," the novel feels as salutary as a volume from the old Landmark series for boys. Did Michener have in mind, perhaps, just a good old-fashioned adventure story?

Finally, as the book advances toward its grim, almost absurdist climax, one wonders if this isn't, after all, a character study, a parable of the British nobleman locked in a rigid panoply of behavioral tics that leads inevitably to tragedy. Michener himself seems to second this in an appendix, "Reflections," when he writes with an uncertainty of tone and substance that understandably may infect the veteran novelist when he stands naked and alone outside his native province of narrative:

"I had said something important, in parable form it is true and therefore limited in certain significant ways, but also with the potential of achieving the readership that sometimes accrues to parable, and I had a strong desire to see it published and in circulation, especially among Canadians for whom I had intended it in the first place."

In the end, all possible glosses aside, the book has a central problem: Michener fails to bring to any of his characters enough of the idiosyncratic grit and piquancy of real human beings. Here are, rather, four Englishman and a Scot direct from Central Casting who exist only inside a sort of Warner Brothers lot of a book with Indians and extras always on the set at the right moment. The young poet has only fine feelings, Lord Luton's nephew is all the brave innocent, while his old friend and fellow adventurer is a mature can-do guy to the letter. And the Scot is the man of the lower classes who, in exhibiting unqualified loyalty, has won the right to argue on behalf of the poacher who--make no mistake--poaches only for food for his family.

Then too, Michener started out as a teacher and there are times the novelistic impulse is overwhelmed by the pedagogical: "The traveler could, if he had the time and money," we are told at one point apropos of no option considered by the protagonists, "deviate from the normal rail route which traversed northern Ontario, go instead to Toronto and onward to Windsor on the Detroit, board a luxurious steamer and spend several delightful days transiting Lakes Huron and Superior, disembarking at Fort William to resume the rail trip west to the Pacific." This was no doubt handy information to a lot of people back in the 1890s in Canada, but it has no relevance to anyone in the novel.

Well, these are days, after all, when writers out of graduate writing programs play fast and loose with the conventions of narrative. The lauded young writer, Michael Chabon, for instance, begins a recent story in The New Yorker in the first person, and, while still inside it, goes into the mind of the first-person narrator's friend, which, outside of the science-fiction genre, is a very neat trick indeed. But on Page 53 of "Journey," Michener goes him one better. In an exchange with a family of Estonians, veterans of the Gold Rush, Lord Luton's nephew learns of many horrors, culminating with ". . . snow comes, everyone on that trail freeze to death," the incorrect verb tense indicating immigrants' English. However, several lines below on the same page, he hears this from one of the Estonians: "If we'd'a tried to push on, we'd'a been snowed in, proper, all winter." Push on? Proper? The Estonian suddenly sounds like a Cockney. Unless this is a book about the transmigration of souls, the storyteller, on this occasion, is playing writer, relying on language and character and not quite bringing it off.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World