Most writers have a physical or mental drawer full of ideas for books that were never written. Maybe the time wasn’t right, or maybe the writer wasn’t up to the task. Generally, those ideas fade and ultimately disappear. Yet every once in a while, some novelist will dust off an ancient memo and say, “Hmmm, there’s something here.”
That process doesn’t usually take 50 years, but heck, novelists have a different sense of time than normal people. Especially if they’re 97 years old. For most of his abundant life span, Herman Wouk has been renowned for the historical realism of books such as his pair of doorstopping 1970s blockbusters, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Also, Wouk received a Pulitzer Prize for “The Caine Mutiny,” although he was never entirely welcome in the high-lit club, maybe because he was considered too successful to be serious.
Now, in “The Lawgiver,” Wouk fulfills the dream of a novel he conceived ages ago, and in doing so reveals himself to be as serious as anyone in his choice of both subject (the Bible) and style (postmodern collage). Fortunately for his readers, he wields a computer with a touch as light as a quill pen.
“The Lawgiver” begins when a writer named Herman Wouk receives an insanely lucrative offer to pass judgment on a screenplay about Moses commissioned by an eccentric Australian billionaire. Tim Warshaw, a Hollywood honcho desperate for a hit to save his failing production company, takes on the project and brings along screenwriter Margolit Solovei, the “preoccupied pagan” daughter of an Orthodox rabbi.
Wouk and his wife, Betty, hear out Solovei’s passionate views of Moses, “a hero nobody can write,” along with various “Hollywood trolls” who beg them to “please keep God’s lines short and few!” The Wouks, along with the trolls, provide us with scores of e-mails, faxes, diary entries, meeting memoranda and taped conversations, creating a tapestry that’s both a paean to the early epistolary form of the novel and utterly of our time.
Clearly, “The Lawgiver” has unleashed Wouk’s inner metafictionalist as well as a parodist of considerable virtue, which is to say viciousness, as he chronicles the battle to get this film on track. Warshaw wants his team to “think twenty-first century, think special effects — think maybe three-D,” yet neither his backer nor his writer wants a re-creation of Cecil B. DeMille. After all, “the Torah narrative is not popcorn amusement for dating teenagers.” And in the midst of financial manipulation and ego games, the Aussie actor they’ve got lined up to play Moses flees into the Outback to herd sheep. Honorably, he offers to send back his salary. Warshaw comments, “An actor returning money . . . is like a total eclipse of the sun, only less usual.”
Throughout his giddy romp between Sinai and Sunset Boulevard, Wouk alludes to a slew of other writers like an over-caffeinated grad student. He mentions Dickens and Thackeray and Saki and Robert Louis Stevenson, who he declares “has a ‘submerged’ reputation, [yet] goes on being read all over the world.” This sounds rather like a description of Wouk’s own career, but without a tang of antiquarian sour grapes. Wouk’s most-famous works may indeed dwell in decades past, but “The Lawgiver” is attuned to the pulse of today. Among its many remarkably ironic, ripped-from-the-headlines moments is a suggestion that the Moses movie becomes a surprise hit across the Arab world.
Besides modern media, “The Lawgiver” explores Jewish faith and nutty Australocentrism, yet it never loses track of its story. The page after I wanted to cry out, “Hey, what happened to that couple at the Uluru red rock?,” Wouk delivers the scene. Even when I began to feel that the Solovei chick was starting to resemble one of Wouk’s early protagonists, Marjorie Morningstar, another character notes precisely that resemblance. And two further plots emerge from beneath the big-money, big-moxie shenanigans. First, the rekindling of Solovei’s long-dormant romance with a young man from her childhood feels like a contemporary echo of Herman Wouk’s 70-year romance with his own wife. Second, in some essential way, this book about a movie about a book is also about the very act of writing books. Wouk reminds us of the eternal value of storytelling while he shows 30- and 50- and 80-year-old whippersnappers how it’s done.
Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. His first children’s book, “Undertown,” is due out next spring.