To review favorably a work by Herman Wouk, America’s only prominent Orthodox Jewish novelist, is to break with long-standing Commentary precedent. Ever since his early novel City Boy was panned in 1948 as “bad (and therefore untrue)…not serious either about pleasure or sorrow,” he has never received a positive notice in these pages. His bestselling The Caine Mutiny (1951) was written off as an inferior naval yarn that contained a romance “as exciting as tapioca with F. Scott Fitzgerald sauce.” Pearl K. Bell found War and Remembrance (1978) extravagantly sentimental and larded with characters who “were not merely trivial but offensively so.”
Perhaps the harshest notice came from Norman Podhoretz, who in one of his first reviews confronted Marjorie Morningstar, the publishing sensation of 1955. While it may have been “the first novel to treat American Jews intimately as Jews without making them seem exotic,” everything else about it was wrong, he wrote, from its “indigestible prose” to its simplistic moral analysis. Wouk’s picture of American Jewish life was a depressingly diminished one, a false choice between bourgeois conformity or Bohemian rebellion (“a feeling that the Jewish personality can only disintegrate and wither away if it ventures beyond the moral and spiritual confines of a Judaic bourgeois style”).
Podhoretz at least took Wouk seriously, which was not always the case in these pages. The phenomenally successful The Winds of War (1971) was never reviewed, nor was Wouk’s own favorite work, Inside, Outside, his 1985 novel about a Jewish lawyer working in the Nixon White House during the summer of Watergate. His two-volume novelistic history of the founding and first three decades of Israel, The Hope (1993) and The Glory (1994), was also passed over. This ambitious history of modern Israel was told chiefly through its wars for survival.
These books could be written off as mere middlebrow entertainment; the same cannot be said of This Is My God (1959), Wouk’s précis of Orthodox Judaism, written in clear language for a general readership. Although it was perhaps the most important book of its kind, and remains in print more than five decades later as a key introduction to Judaism, it too passed unnoticed. Indeed, so consistent is the disregard for Wouk, and for so long a period—65 years!—that simple boredom bids us to take a fresh look, a new perspective. His latest novel, a brisk and quirky farce entitled The Lawgiver—which Wouk wrote at the astonishing age of 97—offers the perfect opportunity.
The one thing people seem to know about Wouk is that he served as a naval officer in World War II. Specifically, he was an executive officer on that most frail of warships, the destroyer minesweeper, and is one of the few people still alive who know what it feels like when a kamikaze plane plunges through the deck of your ship. His experiences formed the basis of his first bestseller, the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Caine Mutiny, which was subsequently adapted into a film and a Broadway play, each highly acclaimed, and of his later novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, each of which was made into a popular TV miniseries.
What is not well known about Wouk is that after graduating from Columbia in 1934, he went to work as a scriptwriter for Fred Allen’s radio show. Today Allen is unknown, except perhaps for his jocular feud with the still legendary Jack Benny, but in his day Allen was an enormously popular comedian. He was also a gifted writer (author of two extraordinarily dry and accomplished memoirs, Treadmill to Oblivion and Much Ado About Me) who meticulously rewrote and edited everything submitted by his writers, already groomed to produce the gently absurdist character humor that he favored. The five years Wouk spent working with him constituted his literary apprenticeship; he learned how to tell a lively and engaging story chiefly by means of dialogue and remarkably tight plotting.
Wouk’s youthful immersion in show business was as formative as his wartime service, and it provided fodder for his novels, most famously Marjorie Morningstar. The heroine of that romance is a plucky Jewish girl from Central Park West who strives mightily to be a Broadway actress but (to the dismay of most contemporary readers) ends up a suburban housewife with three children before she turns 40. Even his military novels abound with young singers, pianists, songwriters, and radio performers. Wouk is particularly gifted at portraying the peculiar mental atmosphere of aspirants at the outset of their career: the wary sense of fellowship among hopefuls and potential revivals, the poignant longing, and the nonstop gallery of narcissists encountered along the way.
To achieve success at a young age in two competitive but utterly different fields of endeavor—entertainment and the wartime Navy—is hardly common, and it suggests an unusually sensitive understanding of the codes of conduct that govern social institutions. These codes, and how they are interpreted by different personalities under the pressure of changing circumstances, figure prominently in Wouk’s most successful novels—the ones in which his careful plotting and research carry a personal resonance, as when he writes about the Navy or show business. These are worlds that Wouk learned from the inside out, not their mere superficial journalistic detail but their precise emotional content: the chronic numbing lack of sleep of a junior officer on a small ship, or the grim determination with which a performer ekes out his modest talent. It is telling that Wouk claims that his “métier is social portraiture through large-scale fiction,” a characteristically understated but very accurate summation of his career.
Show business is the background for The Lawgiver, which concerns the farcical preliminaries to the making of a motion picture about the life of Moses. It is a surpassingly strange book, not least because Wouk and his wife (his longtime literary agent, who died last year) are themselves characters. It is also strange for a fictional work of the 21st century to revert to that favorite literary mode of the 18th, the epistolary novel. Wouk adapts the form to the modern world of instant messaging, faxes, and Skype, and pulls it off successfully—a startling achievement by an author who was born two years before the United States entered World War I.
At the outset we learn that Wouk is writing a novel about the life of Moses, provisionally titled Aaron’s Diary, which tells the story from the viewpoint of his brother, Aaron. As Wouk struggles with writer’s block, a reclusive Australian billionaire of Hasidic background contacts him. The billionaire offers to bankroll a Hollywood film about Moses as long as Wouk agrees to work on the script. This seemingly providential coincidence disarms Wouk, who, despite the entreaties of his wife, is drawn inexorably into the production.
Over the course of the book, we learn that Wouk in reality has been toying with writing such a novel since he wrote The Caine Mutiny 60 years before. Having begun the project again in 2009, he had abandoned it as impossible and then decided to write a novel about just that: the sheer impossibility of writing a novel about Moses.
Wouk is at first convinced that no director can be up to the task of a making a film that accords Moses the proper dignity and scope, as an Atlas-like historical figure, the “Western world resting on his shoulders, Christianity and Islam meaningless without him.” But a collaborator soon emerges in the unlikely person of Margo Solovei, a prodigy who at age 26 has made three independent movies and has had a play staged on Broadway. Wouk is taken aback when he meets her and learns that she knows the Bible in Hebrew. He asks, befuddled, “A Hollywood writer-director who can read the Torah at sight?”
Margo explains that she is the daughter of a rabbi—“a Bobover Hasid with his own small shul in Passaic”—from whom she has been estranged since writing a satirical play about Hassidism (Bobover, Bobover) under a pen name. When she sends Wouk her analysis of the life of Moses as a storytelling problem, he is impressed by her crisp professionalism and shrewd insistence that the film be kept to a tight three-and-a-half hours:
Genesis is a prologue, Deuteronomy is a review. The Moses action that matters all transpires in three books, not five—Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers—and of those three, less than half is storytelling, the rest is religious law. Gone With the Wind length, no more: bursts of hard action, huge time lapses—that’s how the Torah tells it. That’s how the film will tell it, from the beguiling entrance of Moses as a crying baby in a basket to the pathos of the hoary Lawgiver’s exit, alone on Mount Nebo, glimpsing the Promised Land with dying eyes.
And she insists that, unlike The Ten Commandments, the film will contain characters from the Bible only; there will be no figures like DeMille’s Nefretiri, “who is no more in the Torah than Aphrodite or my Aunt Sadie.”
Charmed by Margo’s intelligence and sincerity, Wouk agrees to consult on the film, setting in motion two different plot lines. One concerns the putting together of the film’s production deal, a vast apparatus of writing, casting, and preproduction that is almost torpedoed because of the failure to pay a lowlife agent named Geoffrey Smallweed (Wouk’s minor characters frequently have Dickensian names) a laughably tiny release fee. The second concerns the slow rekindling of Margo’s romance with former boyfriend Josh, now a lawyer. This is willfully but ineptly sabotaged by Shirley Scharf, Margo’s poisonous childhood friend, who sends her comically manipulative reports on Josh.
All these characters are Jewish, with the presumable exception of Perry Pines, the comically guileless Australian actor who plays Moses, and there is none of the sociological preoccupation with assimilation that colors his earlier books. It is now possible to write a novel about Jewish life in America in which non-Jews barely figure at all. In the end, Wouk’s various plot trajectories converge deftly with the more or less simultaneous clinching of several kinds of deals: a production contract, a pair of marriages, and a family reconciliation. All resolve themselves elegantly in the manner of a 19th-century novel, something that has often been said about Wouk as a criticism and which he has invariably taken as a compliment.
Norman Podhoretz may have been accurate about Wouk’s “indigestible prose,” but a writer can be serious and even important without being an elegant stylist like Henry James. Just as Theodore Dreiser dealt with serious matters in the workmanlike pedestrian prose he acquired as a journalist, Wouk still bears the mark of his early apprenticeship in radio, whose scripts are written for aural impact. One does not look for the exquisite in Wouk’s long descriptive passages, but for the punch and surprise of a pungent spoken sentence. In This Is My God, for instance, he writes, “There is a mystery about the Jews. This mystery makes the very word ‘Jew’ a sure shocker on the stage.” In writing an epistolary novel like The Lawgiver, a sort of extended radio script with no descriptive passages whatsoever, Wouk has returned to his roots.
In general, much of the criticism to which Wouk was subjected in these pages seems to come from a misunderstanding of ends and means. For example, The Caine Mutiny, because of its setting and because of the dramatic typhoon that forms its climax, branded Wouk as a seafaring author who was judged accordingly. Spencer Brown, reviewing the book for Commentary,panned Wouk’s account of naval cowardice as inferior to Joseph Conrad’s and noted that his portrait of Captain Queeg, the naval tyrant who compulsively rolls ball bearings in his hand, fell short of that in Melville’s Billy Budd. In treating a popular novel as though it needed to rise to a forbiddingly high-art standard to be of any merit whatsoever, Brown not only confused his categories but missed entirely the startling literary achievement at the center of the book, which concerns Queeg—who is far more complex than Melville’s John Claggart, the villain who torments Billy Budd.
In the novel we come to know Queeg as a petty bully but also a physical coward, who once fails to escort a landing craft to a heavily opposed landing and instead drops a yellow dye marker, for which reason he is nicknamed Old Yellowstain behind his back. On another occasion he becomes obsessed with the theft of a quart of frozen strawberries, leading to a fevered search of every crewman and every compartment of the ship for the hypothetical key that he deduces “with geometric logic” must exist. Queeg’s outbursts and excesses are carefully noted by Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, an aspiring novelist with a bitterly sardonic sense of humor who alerts his fellow officers to what seem to be Queeg’s paranoid tendencies. Finally, during the deadly typhoon of 1944, in which three destroyers were lost in real life, Queeg’s terrified paralysis causes him to be relieved of command by Stephen Maryk, the decent but plodding executive officer of the Caine.
The final third of the book concerns Maryk’s court-martial for mutiny. He is exonerated by the brilliant defense of Barney Greenwald, a naval aviator and attorney in civilian life, who is the only Jewish character in the book. Greenwald wins by letting Queeg incriminate himself on the witness stand in a scene that would later be given cinematic immortality by Humphrey Bogart. To those who have suffered vicariously along with the officers of the Caine, Queeg’s comeuppance is an immensely satisfying moment. And yet at the post-trial party something unexpected happens: A drunken Greenwald staggers in to offer a startling reverse profile of Queeg. Greenwald makes Queeg’s actions seem defensible and even reasonable, and his failings those of a hard-driving officer pushed to exhaustion by demanding wartime service and feelings of personal inadequacy. He ends by toasting Keefer—who neatly managed to duck all responsibility for the mutiny—as “the real author of the Caine mutiny,” and flings champagne into his face.
This gesture, a wine stain that parallels Queeg’s yellow stain, is the sort of symbolism that Wouk’s detractors have always found cloying. It has the same obvious quality as the scene in which Marjorie Morningstar loses her virginity and much of her self-respect, and while reaching in the dark for a glass of water causes it to drop and break, a too-literal evocation of the conclusion of a Jewish wedding.
But to focus on the sentimentality of the symbolism is to miss how brilliantly and artfully Wouk forces the reader to reconsider Queeg. Of course the conventional and lazy way to show this is the cinematic shortcut of filming a scene in several ways, showing several points of view. But in life itself, we can only think about what we saw and heard in different ways. They are themselves sufficiently complex and ambiguous; what seems incontrovertibly true one day (Queeg is dangerously deranged and must be relieved) can seem quite the opposite the next (Queeg is desperately worn out and urgently in need of kind help).
What is remarkable about The Caine Mutiny is that this reconsideration of Queeg is effected with no cagey revealing of heretofore concealed information, merely by a suggestion that we look at the facts we know from a different perspective. Who has not experienced this? Our most urgent certainties can collapse at a friend’s unexpected comments.
At first glance, Margo Solovei of The Lawgiver has nothing to do with the male heroes of Wouk’s wartime novels, and she belongs only to the entertainment world of his early career. And yet she reprises a situation that recurs again and again in his books: the talented but self-absorbed artist who is forced by life to think of higher things. Most of his heroes, such as Margo or the eponymous Marjorie Morningstar, achieve maturity only in the moment they raise their sights from entertainment to the things that matter. It is easy to imagine that this revelation reprises the defining moment of his own life, when he left the thrills of being a young writer in Manhattan for the grim business of conning an undersized ship through dirty weather, waiting for the suicide attack that might come with only seconds of warning.
Such was the real stuff of life, and Wouk’s quiet contempt for those who do not rise to the challenge is palpable. It is striking that the sneering line, “the real author of the Caine mutiny,” the nastiest line of the novel, refers at once to the book’s most loathsome character and also to Wouk himself. But Keefer only represents one aspect of Wouk, and The Caine Mutiny presents a classic instance of literary doubling. Keefer is paralleled by callow Ensign Willie Keith, who, as his similar name suggests, is another side of the same coin. Keith, too, is talented, a glib improviser who effortlessly invents amusing songs at the piano and dreams of a career in musical entertainment.
It is the more mature and sophisticated Keefer who ultimately fails the test. When he is commanding the Caine at the end of the novel, and it is struck by a kamikaze, as Wouk’s ship was, it is Keefer who panics and leaps into the water, while Keith, who has already abandoned his dreams of a musical career, stays and successfully fights the fire. Ironically, it is the pitiable Keefer whom Wouk most resembles, for he too tinkered on his novel throughout the war just as Keefer does throughout The Caine Mutiny. In this, one detects a certain rueful ambivalence about his own career path, which perhaps sheds light on his quiet return to Orthodox practice in the years after the war.
In the end, while The Lawgiver can be enjoyed as a romantic farce, it can be read on other levels as well. It is a tutorial on dramatic storytelling and the Hollywood production business—another business that Wouk also knows from the inside out, although he clearly views it with bemused detachment. It also offers a touching portrait of the Wouks’ 63-year-long marriage, which culminates movingly in the final pages. But finally, it can be read as a meditation on the relevance of Moses and his laws today—and how we observe them in the conduct of our lives. In the end, the book turns out to be a novel about Moses after all, concealed within a book about the impossibility of writing a novel about Moses. It is just the sort of playful absurdity that Fred Allen would have enjoyed. And it is an indelible mark of the moral seriousness that lies at the heart of the work of Herman Wouk—a seriousness that this magazine, alas, was too blind to see and perhaps a mite too snooty to celebrate.