Books: The Wouk Mutiny

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What indeed? For 417 pages, Margie is a virgin on the verge. Then, on the eve of Noel Airman's first Broadway opening, Lady Brett Ashley wins out over Shirley, in a Central Park South hotel room. This may well be the longest to-do over the loss of a girl's virginity since Richardson's Pamela. Says Wouk defensively: "Some people may get impatient and think, 'She's going to sleep with this guy, what's all the fuss?' But it's still a great suspense thing to a girl. If you don't think so, take a poll. The question may be more serious to Marjorie because of her Old Testament upbringing. But it is a key problem for any girl. It's a general American dilemma."

The "Gilded Ghetto." When Margie is not coping with her dilemma, she is occupied with shyster theatrical producers, a pedestrian suitor named Dr. Shapiro, and the diehard devotion of little Wally Wronken. A character who warms Marjorie's heart, and the reader's, is her uncle, Samson-Aaron, a robustious clown, a seam-splitting glutton, and a lovable dead-beat ("But a nickel, Modgerie, a nickel I always had, to buy you a Hershey bar ven I came to this house"). In his simple way, he shows Marjorie how close she really is to the faith she once brashly dismissed as a Stone Age relic.

Author Wouk is at his best when he pictures the rarely described world of Manhattan's Upper West Side, which one of his characters calls the "gilded ghetto." Wouk knows its customs, prejudices, social gradations, e.g., West End Avenue is a worse address than Central Park West; mothers run a secret service on eligible suitors as efficiently as any conducted in Junior League territory. Most amusing and effective are Wouk's accounts of big family occasions, e.g., the mammoth bar mitzvah* with its ostentatious but somehow touching banquet that finds Marjorie's brother making a grand entrance to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, flanked by a cauldron of flaming brandy for the grapefruit appetizers.

In such scenes Wouk gives his people a special tang and zest. A Passover dinner at the Morgensterns' is turned into a hilarious romp by a progressively raised brat named Neville ("The Devil") Sapersteen, who bites little girls in the rump and needs 47 toy airplanes handy at all times in an open suitcase because, as the mother explains, they're "a sort of security symbol." ("Morris, leave the lid up or he'll get a trauma.")

On to Mamaroneck. When Noel's play and his affair with Margie both turn out to be flops, he flees to Paris, but Margie follows him, still determined to lasso the cad with a wedding ring. Aboard ship she meets another charmer, Mike Eden, who has a bad case of nerves, but for good cause: he is playing Scarlet Pimpernel in Nazi Germany and smuggling out persecuted Jews. Still, Noel has a fatal hold on her, and she finally catches up with him, only to find him living with and off a lady photographer.

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