cover image Recessional


James A. Michener. Random House (NY), $25 (484pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43612-6

The veteran author's extended exploration of the world of geriatrics is an up and down affair, alternating inspiring episodes with cliche-ridden narratives. Andy Zorn, a young doctor running from a past scandal, has been hired by geriatric mogul John Taggart to revitalize the Palms, a Tampa retirement community that's fallen into a minor malaise of both profits and morale. Michener sets up his usual labyrinthine sprawl of secondary characters, but what's missing is the unique sense of place that's driven his best works in the past. This time, Michener applies his research to the ravages of old age that plague the Palms' population, but the level of detail often seems unnecessary for the story he's telling. Some episodes and characters are touching: the tale of a seemingly mismatched couple in which the husband cares for the wife after she contracts Alzheimer's; a series of stories about four elder statesmen in the home who conspire to build and fly an airplane; and the saga of a widow who must make some difficult decisions after a biopsy for breast cancer. On the negative side, the romantic subplot between Zorn and a handicapped woman whom he rescues after a car accident reads like fodder for a bad TV movie; the doctor's efforts to provide care for an AIDS patient outside the home have similar problems with realism-the worst offense being a series of passages told from the perspective of a rattlesnake. It's obvious that Michener, who turns 87 this year, finds his subject engaging-but there's not quite enough inspiration here to place this with his top-shelf work. Major ad/promo; Random House Audiobook. (Oct.)