Books: The Wouk Mutiny

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All Wouk & No Play. At school, says Wouk, he was "criminally lazy," but he got good grades by cramming for exams.

When his grandfather, Rabbi Mendel Leib Levine, came to the U.S. from Russia, he took over Herman's religious training. Rabbi Levine, now an alert 90-year-old living in Tel Aviv, is one of the two men who, Wouk believes, have most influenced his life (the other: Columbia's late Philosopher Irwin Edman). "For 23 years," recalls Wouk, "my grandfather never ate any meat except fowl, because he insisted on personally seeing the slaughtering done according to the prescribed ritual."

At Columbia, Wouk worked for the college daily, edited the humor magazine (sample humor: "Have you heard of the guy who read Dante's Inferno just for the hell of it?"). He wrote two varsity shows (wrote a collegiate critic: "All Wouk and no play").

The Gag Factory. Wouk majored in comparative literature (like The Caine's Willie Keith) and in philosophy (like Marjorie's Noel Airman). This was the period of what Wouk now calls "the great sophomoric enlightenment ... I discovered the 18th and 19th centuries, and, for a time, I didn't observe my religion very carefully." In time he went back to his faith. His return was not caused by any particular crisis, only "the crisis of living as an adult. I felt there's a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance. I'd be a jerk not to take advantage of it."

Before graduation, Wouk had announced that he was going to be a writer. His sister Irene still remembers the family powwows that ensued: "Father said if Herman wanted to write, why not write advertising copy for the Fox Square Laundry? Mother twisted her apron in anguish and insisted that he go to law school." (Years later proud Mama Wouk was seen carrying The Caine Mutiny almost everywhere she went.)

Herman found an out. A friend had landed a writing post at a resort camp, Copake, and Herman tagged along as his unpaid assistant. Copake was a less imposing facsimile of South Wind, the camp in Marjorie Morningstar, and Herman's was roughly the Wally Wronken post.

Next, Wouk went to work (at $15 a week) for a cigar-chomping "czar of gagwriters" who ran a joke factory supplying gags to Fanny Brice, Lou Holtz, Eddie Cantor et al. Wouk's job was to clip and card-index old jokes and to clean up the off-color items. Two years later he was hired as a radio gagwriter by Fred Allen. His special chore for the Allen-program: the "People You Didn't Expect to Meet" interview, for which he unearthed weirdies, e.g., a goldfish doctor, a worm salesman and "the man who inserts the cloves in the hams you see in Lindy's window." Allen also credits Wouk with such skits as "Detective One Long Pan Was Disguised as a Girdle So They Knew He Was Closing In."

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