Fiction as imagined fact. Michener's paean to patriots

Legacy, by James A. Michener. New York: Random House. 176 pp. $16.95. `LEGACY,' a novel, is James A. Michener's paean to the Constitution of the United States. Unlike ``Hawaii,'' ``Centennial,'' and ``Texas,'' ``Legacy'' runs to a mere 176 pages, and 24 of them contain the Constitution in its entirety. Fans of Michener's blockbusters may be disappointed by the compactness of ``Legacy.'' They'll just have to wait for his next novel, ``Alaska,'' which promises to be heftier.

``Legacy'' resembles its predecessors in its interweaving of fact and fiction. This novel, however, traces the history of a family's relationship with the Constitution, rather than the history of a state or a country. A more personal book than its predecessors, it clearly presents the conservative viewpoint of its popular, 80-year-old author.

The main character is Maj. Norman Starr, a 36-year-old West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran attached to the National Security Council. Starr learns that in a few days he will be interrogated by a congressional committee concerning his activities in Nicaragua in 1986, activities that he assumed were approved by his superiors, among them, Rear Adm. John Poindexter.

Starr's lawyer, Zack McMaster, assures him that ``I can save your neck. I don't think they can lay a hand on you. Not in that uniform, with those family heroes and your own three or four tiers of medals.''

McMaster advises him to brush up on his family tree, which includes a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a signer of the Constitution, a Supreme Court justice, a Confederate general, and a suffragette. Michener provides biographies of these fictional heroes and heroines, complete with excerpts from letters and diaries. Each character helped shape or interpret the Constitution.

Fortified by his history lesson, Starr marches off to face the congressional committee, prepared to take the Fifth Amendment.

The story of Major Starr is certainly timely, and it would be interesting to know whether Michener's plot, if you can call it that, was prophetic or whether he made some last-minute changes to fit his story into recent headlines.

Either way, he skirts one of the major issues raised by the Iran-contra hearings: Does patriotism excuse illegal acts? He provides few details about Starr's activities in Nicaragua, and he fails to adequately explain the connection between Starr's accountability for his actions in Nicaragua and his illustrious ancestors.

There's another problem with those illustrious ancestors. Historical novels usually deal either with real historical figures or fictional characters who are not too important and can be easily slipped into a historical framework. Michener, however, has chosen to create characters who are too important to be wholly believable. For example, he provides Norman with an ancestral signer of the Constitution, Simon Starr of Virginia. Yet the presence of the Constitution in the same novel, complete with a list of the real signers, glaringly highlights the fictitious nature of Simon Starr.

It's obvious that Michener has put a great deal of thought and research into this novel. It's also obvious that his patriotism is sincere.

It can be naive to assume that the thoughts of a novel's narrator are also those of its author, but in the case of ``Legacy'' it is probably safe to assume that Norman Starr expresses Michener's thoughts on communism and aid to the contras. Whether or not the reader agrees with those thoughts, it's clear that Michener could have found a better vehicle for them than this book.

Jane Stewart Spitzer is a free-lance book reviewer.

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