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Mexico Hardcover – October 19, 1992
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This is the story of a tumultuous land, in a novel that vividly captures the sweep of Mexico's colorful history and teems with a multitude of unforgettable characters. Moving between the past and present -- from important events in Mexico's history to the excitement of a modern-day bullfight -- and ranging from the arid plains of Mexico to Inquisition Spain and Civil War Virginia, here is the stirring saga of a man and a nation searching for their identities.
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The majority of his books were actually about places as opposed to people. Note titles such as Alaska, Poland, Texas, Chesapeake, and this one as well. Although his work was fiction, he had the remarkable ability to use a location as the main character of his stories, and would tell stories of characters that lived in the particular location – sometimes stretching back over thousands of years. Usually the book would start in (or close to) present day, with some sort of historian, teacher, author, etc. arriving at a location, reflecting a bit about the particular place, and then Michener would propel us to the past and the real “story” would begin. Usually, Michener would tell about eight or ten different tales, each one jumping to the next by about a century, with mostly new characters (obviously), yet they were somehow connected (usually related) to players in the previous section. So in a sense, we would almost get a family history. Again, though, it was the geographic location that was really the main focus, and served as the foundation for the stories throughout the pages.
Mexico was one of Michener’s last books. He was well into his eighties, and sadly, this isn’t close to being one of his best. Whether or not the man’s advancing age had anything to do with it, I’m not sure, but the majority of things I’ve read by him were much better than this one.
This book actually starts out o.k. We meet journalist Norman Clay who, despite his anglo-sounding name, has strong ties to this country. It’s present day (or close -1961 I believe), and Clay has been assigned to the (fictional) city of Toledo to cover a bull fight. Michener uses the bull fight to begin to explore the various cultures and customs of Mexico, as we meet a few different bull fighters from different backgrounds. Example: one bull fighter is a “pure” Spaniard, whereas another is an authentic “Indian”. We're then treated to a nice primer of the different races of people and their customs. After about 100 pages or so, Michener puts us in the customary time machine, and we’re bolted back to around the year 600 A.D., and the real adventure begins.
Everything is great until around the end of the first quarter of the book. Michener then takes us back to present day Norman Clay, and we get more bull fighting. A lot of bull fighting. It seems as though Clay is now “entertaining” some Americans and begins a longwinded saga explaining bull fighting to his guests. There’s simply too much mundane information here to be of interest. I kept wanting Michener to go back several centuries and continue his normal story telling journey. Alas, we spend too much time in the present day, and by the time you’re halfway through this book, you realize this isn’t going to be a typical Michener. Yes, we eventually do go back in time, but there’s too few pages learning about the country’s ancestors, and he keeps bouncing back to the present day bullfight. It kind of reminded me of watching an interesting special on PBS, only to have it interrupted every 15 minutes for their annoying pledge drives.
A normal Michener consists of about 15% “present day” and 85% “the rich authentic past”, whereas this book seems about 60-40. The 40% that gave us the history lesson is quite pleasant, but you simply have to wonder why the ratio was so screwed up for this book. Again, maybe the author was losing his touch. I would recommend “skimming” the present day pages once you’re about 200-300 pages into the novel, but it’s worth it to take the time when we do, in fact, travel back several centuries. It should also be noted that there are several important things about Mexico’s history that are obviously missing from this book, and you have to wonder why they’re not included. We must remember, however, that Michener did write a novel on Texas (one of his best and longest), which was actually part of Mexico until the 1840s. So maybe the author didn’t want to duplicate certain events of history that he already covered?
Regardless, this one was a bit of a let-down, but there are masses of material from his catalog that are, in fact, quite satisfying.
Good, but well below another great read by James Michener, whose work and life I consider a National Treasure.