Books: The Wouk Mutiny

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Noel as a brilliant, devastating heel—a West Side version of a Scott Fitzgerald hero—rarely rings true. But his deterioration and his ultimate meaning are convincing. "He takes the current myths for solid facts," says one character about him. "It never occurs to him that the Oedipus complex really doesn't exist, that it is a piece of moralistic literature. He's as orthodox as your own father, Marjorie, in his fashion . . . making a life's work out of being dogmatic, clever, supercilious—and inwardly totally confused and wretched."

Author Wouk builds up real suspense about the question of whom Marjorie will finally marry—a reformed Noel, a romantic Eden, a successful Wally, or plain Dr. Shapiro. The last chapter finds her a contented matron of Mamaroneck, who in her memory has revamped the past to suit the present. As she gets a little high and waltzes alone to the strains of Falling in Love with Love, she seems for a moment like the dream girl of old. But the moment passes. An old beau who is visiting her decides: "You couldn't write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies."

Island of Normalcy. Herman Wouk obviously disagrees. To him, Marjorie is a story he felt he had to tell: "This person has haunted me for years. It's not a girl I was in love with. It is a lot of girls I knew, since I grew up in all this."

Like.Marjorie, Wouk was born in The Bronx, the son of Abraham Isaac and Esther Levine Wouk. Both parents came from Minsk, Russia. Papa Wouk started washing clothes in a basement, rose to be president of one of New York's largest power laundries. One of Herman's earliest memories is playing hide and seek among the machines. The Wouk family was "restless, like most New Yorkers," and while Herman was still a child, made four moves, from one canyonlike apartment house to another, all within what Wouk calls "that romantic, and much overcriticized borough," The Bronx.

Though he was later to toss a nostalgic valentine to his Bronx boyhood in his novel, City Boy, little Herman got off to a depressing start. He was the neighborhood fat boy, forever guzzling chocolate milkshakes. In street fights, "I was clobbered." But he had two powerful consolations: the Wouk home life and books. As soon as he learned to read, he would sprawl on the floor for hours with a tattered old dictionary, glorying in big words like anthropomorphism.

The love that Mama and Papa Wouk lavished on him, his sister Irene and his brother Victor warms Herman to this day. Best of all he liked the Sabbath. As a rabbi's daughter, "Mama was treated rather like a princess around the house." But when Friday afternoon came, "she scrubbed the kitchen on her hands and knees until the place shone. The candles were lit, and we sang the joyful Sabbath hymns and drank the sacramental wine; the children, too. My father usually talked about the Bible." As in Marjorie Morgenstern's home, the menu was always gefilte fish,* chicken noodle soup, roast chicken, stewed prunes, tea and sponge cake. Those evenings, says Wouk, made for "an island of normalcy. Home seemed to be the place where everything happened as it should happen."

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