Book Review – The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk crafted the most brilliant bildungsroman I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The Caine Mutiny traced Willie Keith’s development from his pampered beginnings, his commissioning and early years as a naval officer through his participation in the most insubordinate act an armed services member can commit. To add even more drama to the later incident, it took place in the eye of a typhoon during World War II. If there’s a better war novel out there, I haven’t experienced it.

While the novel traced Mr. Keith’s maturation, three articles delineated in the Navy Regulations served as the cohesive theme holding the story together. These rules described the conditions under which a subordinate may relieve his superior of command. One has to credit Mr. Wouk for combining these disparate elements into a single story.

It would be hard to imagine more serious topics than those chosen by the author. I found it quite interesting that he began his career as a comedy writer. The entertaining way he managed to add humorous quips to the narrative made the reading much more enjoyable. Here’s Mr. Wouk’s depiction of Willie’s first meeting with the then skipper of the Caine, Captain DeVrees.

“Collared him did you? Nice work,” said a voice full of irony and authority, and the captain of the Caine came to the doorway. Willie was even more startled by him. The captain was absolutely naked. In one hand he carried a Lifebuoy soap, in the other a lighted cigarette. He had a creased old-young face, blond hair, and a flabby white body. “Welcome aboard, Keith!”

“Thank you, sir.” Willie felt an urge to salute, to bow, in some way to express reverence for supreme authority. But he remembered a regulation about not saluting a superior when he was uncovered. And he had never seen a more uncovered superior than his commanding officer.” (Location 1437)

Thomas Keefer, one of Willie’s shipmates and a budding novelist, observed: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” (Location 2020)

When Willie expressed his admiration for Keefer’s writing ability, the later provided him with a tutorial on how to write an official Navy report. It read like a passage out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

“Are you kidding?” said the communications officer. “I wrote that as fast as I could type it. Probably a minute and a half. You just have to develop an ear for Navy prose, Willie. For instance, note that split infinitive in paragraph three. If you want a letter to sound official, split an infinitive. Use the word ‘subject’ very often. Repeat phrases as much as possible. See my beautiful reiteration of the phrase ‘subject man.’ Why, it’s got the hypnotic insistence of a bass note in a Bach fugue.” (Location 3398)

The author included one conversation with semi-comic effect. Here’s part of an exchange between Willie and Ed, the captain of another ship, regarding the rules governing a commanding officer’s removal.

“…Want me to tell you something? One night down in Noumea I got drunk with the exec—under the Iron Duke (Captain Sammis), this was—and he quoted Article 184 to me by heart. And he said he was just waiting for the Duke to do that one really impossible thing, and he’d nail him. But he never mentioned it to me again. You should have seen the way Sammis made him crawl, too—“

“They never do that one thing, Ed. That’s the catch.” (Location 9703)

Mr. Wouk crafted the novel in a way that stimulated my curiosity for what would happen next. He wrote the events leading up to the mutiny against Captain Queeg brilliantly. The subsequent court martial also read well. I found myself wavering on whether or not the captain deserved to be removed. In the events leading up to his displacement, I agreed with the officers’ analysis of his behavior. During the court martial I agreed with the JAG that Willie and the executive officer acted improperly. Now I’m not sure. That makes me want to re-read a book I just finished.

I found Willie’s development absolutely outstanding. His father wrote him a letter stating:

It seems to me that you’re very much like our whole country—young, naïve, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock. (Location 1237)

The author did an exceptional job animating these traits in his protagonist throughout the novel. Marcel Proust once wrote, “We don’t receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us, or spare us.” Willie embodied this sentiment. I liked the ways he came to discover and struggle with his personal shortcomings on his own.

I’d classify this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel as a masterpiece of historical fiction. Willie Keith’s development amidst the backdrop of real events made an outstanding read. At the book’s conclusion, I found myself wanting to learn about the next stages of Willie’s life. Mr. Wouk celebrated his 101st birthday in May. Would he be open to writing a sequel after all these years?

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