THE SOURCE by James Michener. 909 pages. Random House. $7.95.
The past is changing almost as rapidly as the present. In the past two decades modern archaeology has so drastically rewritten ancient history that the facts of yesterday are the errors of today. But who reads scholarly archaeological journals? Novelist James A. Michener, that's who. In this massive historical novel, Michener attempts to bring to new life the history of the long deadand simultaneously to provide the interested but unscholarly reader with a course in Biblical history. He conscientiously talked with the leading diggers, visited the principal sites, swallowed the relevant literature whole. Unhappily, he has been unable to digest all his information. The Source, a laborious and interminable book that is the current Book of the Month Club choice, is at best an avalanche of unsorted facts and artifacts.
Burst of Poetry. As in Hawaii, a series of historical novellas are embedded in a meandering contemporary narrative. They run through 12,000 years and 909 pages and include disquisitions on mythology, theology, sociology, philosophy, ethics, political science and the history of religions. The contemporary narrative describes the excavation of Tell Makor, a fictitious mound in northwestern Israel. At each of 15 chronological levels, extending in time from 10,000 B.C. to A.D. 1948, the archaeologists make a significant discovery, and for each discovery the author produces an illustrative tale.
At Level XV (9834 B.C.), Makor was a six-family settlement of happy hunters dwelling in a cozy cave and rejoicing in their primal innocence. Ur, the twinkle-eyed patriarch, romped with the kiddies, celebrated his hunting prowess in ecstatic bursts of epic poetry. But Mrs. Ur wanted a better way of life, moved the family into a nice new house down near the well, got everybody started on farming, free enterprise, philosophy, house building, domestication of the wild dog, sickle manufacturing, and the long agony of getting along with God. All in the space of three years.
At Level XIII (1419 B.C.), Makor was a bustling Canaanite trading center. Out of the desert came a tribe of wandering Hebrews led by a leathery patriarch, Zadok. God had spoken to Zadok from a burning bush and told him to lead his people to a promised land. What happens is a straight steal from the Book of Judges.
At Level XI (605 B.C.), Makor was a broken-down little village where the only excitement was an occasional romp with the sacred prostitutes of Astarte until the Babylonians came. Corner, a self-righteous scold who must have seen proof sheets from the Book of Jeremiah, prophesied the fall of the city, the Babylonian captivity, and destruction of the conquerors.
And so it goes, all the way up to Level I (1948 A.D.), when Makor lay I forgotten as Jews fought Arabs. The conservative rabbis fumed when Israeli insurgents broke the Sabbath to man the barricades, llana, an aggressive Israeli she-male, holds off Arab and rabbi alike; between sorties against enemy entrenchments, she launches a noisy diatribe against the rabbi's "ghetto mentality.'' To replace the religion of her fathers, she proclaims for the new state of Israel the gospel of progress.