Travel, Adventure In Michener's World

By , Clara Germani is on the Monitor's Washington staff.

WHETHER he's having an epiphany over a camp-out in New Guinea with head-hunting cannibals or getting politically charged by the melodrama of great opera, James A. Michener's world is a place and a time worth reading about.

His autobiography, "The World is My Home: A Memoir" charts the personal wanderings and explorations behind his many novels about place. You don't have to be a fan of his fiction to enjoy the life Michener has led.

An orphan who blossomed into an incredibly rich man - in spirit and knowledge as much as money - Michener's story has a constant "It's a Wonderful Life" feel to it. What often sounds like braggadocio - those opportunities Michener turns to gold - is muted by an unintimidating four-square, Clark Kent-ish earnestness.

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Raised in poor circumstances, he won scholarships to college and a fellowship that sent him on his first trip abroad.

He survived serious plane crashes, coming away with spiritual insight about the way he wanted to live his life - "like a great man," erasing envy and cheap thoughts and surrounding himself with people who knew more than he did.

He didn't write his first book Tales of the South Pacific until he was 40. Even after the book won a Pulitzer Prize, his hopes were dashed when his prominent agent dropped him, saying Michener had no future as a writer. And yet after more than 30 best-selling books, travel to every corner of the world but Antarctica, acting as an adviser to United States presidents, he still claims his highest ambition is "to be a good citizen."

Exotic travel is often the excuse for the romantic angst and hip, expatriate snobbery of the "artist abroad," but there's none of that in Michener's autobiography or in any of his fiction. He's more like an inquiring mind abroad, full of interesting anecdotes distilling where he's been (virtually everywhere) and how it has affected his thinking (he's a liberal Democrat with a rock-solid, anticommunist bent).

In one brief passage, he captures an explanation for the travel lust that affects so many. While Michener says he initially traveled - on those childhood hitchhiking forays - to be changed, there is something else essential to travel. "One of the treasures of travel, one of the reasons we journey to distant places, is to intensify our appreciations of the familiar things we've known since childhood," he writes.

The book begins with the World War II years when, as a military historian, he traveled carte blanche around the Pacific, falling in love with the islands and writing the stories that would become the book, "Tales of the South Pacific." The initial chapters are the hook that reels in the reader with detail of the roguery of US troops in paradise.

The only notable problem with this autobiography is that the writer of incredibly detailed novels is not so detailed about himself. He neglects to provide references to years as he rockets back and forth in time. By design or neglect, he doesn't name many of the important people - for example, literary agents or politicians - central to important anecdotes.

And finally, even a casual reader would find it frustrating not to know more about the loves of the man's life.

He was married more than once and yet he offers less about his wives than his buddies Walter Cronkite and Art Buchwald. And then, he really causes a double take and doubles the curiosity when he drops the fact that he dated the woman after whom Truman Capote modeled his character Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

But these are only mild problems in the scheme of such a sweepingly interesting life. Even at 512 pages, "The World is My Home" is a quick and easy read, and a rich autobiography that rivals any fiction for tales of geographic or mental adventure.

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