Picks and Pans Review: Legacy

updated 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by James Michener

Someone check and see if hell has frozen over: James Michener has written a book that's not long enough. It's a strange novel that combines a slightly fictionalized version of the Iran-contra controversy with the story of the writing of the Constitution. Now, ordinarily Michener could get a couple of thousand pages out of something like that without even warming up. This book, however, is only 173 pages long, and 23 of them are devoted to reprinting the Constitution. Michener tells the story of Norman Starr, an Army major on White House staff duty (while he's a fictional character, he is a coworker of Oliver North); he has been asked to testify before a Senate committee investigating Reagan Administration activities in Central America. But Michener also includes flashback tales of Starr's ancestors, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the original Constitutional Convention, a Supreme Court justice, a Confederate officer in the Civil War, a suffragette, a grandfather who hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a World War II Medal of Honor winner. The characters are barely sketched and manage to be stilted at that. There is also some unintended humor, as in the Supreme Court justice's description of his father's death in a duel: "So ended his preoccupation with the American Constitution and his adoration of Alexander Hamilton." Another example: Norman tells his wife, "I love you so much. You've always been so damned decent." Still there's something that seems right about this book. Maybe it's the suggestion of how the most admirable strains of the American personality came together in the creation of the Constitution and how those same strains might just still exist today. Maybe it's the way Starr ruminates about his problem in such an ingratiatingly naive way. Or maybe it's just that Michener, who seems to have become almost an institution himself—he has even come to look a little like our symbolic eagle—has earned the right to do exactly the kind of thing he does in this book, which is essentially to come out and say, "You know, all things considered, we have a right to be proud of our country." (Random House, $16.95)

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