Books: The Wouk Mutiny

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(9 of 9)

Somewhere inside Herman Wouk there plays a permanent recording of The Little Engine That Could. He has at various times doggedly tackled flying, boxing, aquaplaning, and taught himself to type, play the piano, and do the breast stroke. When Wouk saw Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, he went home in despair: "You worm! You thug!" he raged at himself. "Get out of this business'" But next morning he was still in business, lifting the court-martial sequence out of The Caine. He wrote the whole play in "three horrible weeks."

Accent on Form. From Babbitt, to The Grapes of Wrath, to The Naked and the Dead, a generation of talented but angry men has been bending the ear of U.S. readers, almost suggesting that thinking men should secede from the U.S. Wouk is not an angry man. But there is more than artless optimism or patriotism beneath the surface of his stories. Wouk denies taking stands for or against anything, but the evidence of the books contradicts him. There is an indictment in The Caine Mutiny—not, ultimately, of Queeg, the maniacal martinet, but of Keefer, the phony intellectual. There is an indictment in Marjorie Morningstar—of Noel Airman, the restless Bohemian.

These characters are not indicted because they are intellectuals, but because they are irresponsible. What Wouk is saying, in effect, is that if everyone acted like Keefer, armies would fall apart, and wars would be lost. If everyone acted like Airman, marriages, families and society would crumble. These are platitudes, but they are the platitudes (as Wouk has Willie Keith say) of "growing up."

To Wouk, rebellion for rebellion's sake is an outmoded adolescent cliche. Friends find him a hard man to know, perhaps because he is without capacity for the sustained and often neurotic introspection in which writers often indulge. If all this makes him a conformist, he is willing to bear the tag, provided that the accent is on the second syllable. Says Wouk: "One must impose a form on life."

The critical meat cleavers may indeed be out for Herman Wouk this time around, but though they cut up the work, they will miss the man. Novels No. 5 and No. 6 are already in the mental blueprint stage ("I wouldn't even tell my wife what they're about"). Says Wouk earnestly: "I'm going to write novels for the rest of my life, each one better than the last."

* The promiscuous heroine of Hemingway's "lost generation" novel The Sun Also Rises.

* The ceremony at which a boy of 13 assumes adult religious responsibility.

* Balls of chopped fish, egg, onion and seasoning, boiled with vegetables.

* While collecting weather data for the Caine in Washington, he stumbled on a movie idea about hurricane-hunting pilots; the movie (Slattery's Hurricane) netted him $85,000.

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