IT ALL BEGINS in the White House Executive Office Building during that terrible Watergate summer of 1973. There, lodged in one of those big high-ceilinged rooms without anything pressing to do, Israel David Goodkind, a 58-year-old corporate tax attorney, life-long Democrat, former gag writer, and now a neglected special assistant to the president -- yes, that president -- starts writing his memoirs about growing up Jewish in America.
What Herman Wouk has tried to do, in the words of his hero, I. David Goodkind, is write "a kaddish for my father . . . start to finish; but in counterpoint it is also a torch song for the thirties, a sentimental Big Band number that no one has ever heard till now."
Wouk succeeds wonderfully well, even brilliantly in parts, and his very, very long novel -- if you don't mind frequent helpings of sentimentality -- is often fascinating, frequently funny and sometimes quite moving. I also suspect it of being a prescription written to cure Portnoy's Complaint.
In one of his frequent ruminative passages, our hero, I. David Goodkind (with a long i), decided that "All American Jewish novelists are college professors, and they all write about Jewish college professors, who are writing novels about Jewish college professors. It is a strict literary convention of the genre, like fourteen lines of sonnet form."
By the time he comes to this conclusion, Goodkind is not only a high-priced tax lawyer, who does battle for utilities against the IRS, but he also negotiates the occasional publishing and Hollywood deal for his old Columbia University classmate, Peter Quat, who earns a spectacular living by writing savage novels about being Jewish in America.
But to Goodkind, growing up Jewish in America was a wild, wonderful and esoteric adventure. For there are two Americas: the one inhabited by your Jewish family and friends -- the Inside -- with its own customs and language, and that other America -- the Outside -- which is pagan, suspect and fascinating.
Goodkind grows up in the southeast Bronx, the son of Russian immigrants. His father eventually establishes a commercial laundry with two deadweight partners who cling to him like leeches for the rest of his life. Goodkind's mother is, of course, outspoken, aggressive, warm, headstrong and almost overpowering. She is also unusually well drawn as is Goodkind p thoughtful man with an exceptional mind.
Goodkind himself grows up smart, skipping grades, going to summer camp, and eventually getting admitted to Columbia -- with the aid of one of his father's gentile friends -- where he discovers he has a talent for writing. After graduation, this talent helps land him a job with Henry Goldhandler, who runs a gag factory that supplies scripts for half-hour radio comedy shows.
Until now, Goodkind's sex life has been virtually nonexistent. But then he meets the Broadway showgirl, Bobbie Webb, and an obviously doomed love affair begins.
Wouk shifts us almost effortlessly back and forth between New York in the '20s and '30s and Washington in 1973. In the fall of that year, Goodkind's aged mother becomes ill in Israel. Watergate has also heated up again and the vice president is about to resign because of excessive greed. Goodkind flies off to Israel, finds his mother somewhat recovered, and then goes calling on Golda Meir, whom he had escorted on U.S. fund-raising tours while he was counselor to the United Jewish Appeal.
It is here, I think, that Wouk's novel suffers from a mild case of Lanny Budd Blight, but he quickly cures it with only a minimum dose of melodrama and the Israelis, with a hand from Goodkind, go on to win their Yom Kippur War. There is also a gem of a scene between the disintegrating chief executive and Goodkind at Camp David. Wouk artfully catches the president's bewilderment and portrays him with understanding and compassion, if not sympathy.
Flashing back to the '30s again, Goldhandler, the gag writer, dies and Goodkind returns to Columbia to take his law degree. His romance with the beautiful Bobbie Webb also dies, only to flicker into life again and then blaze up to a point where he asks this compete Outsider to marry him.
I have only touched on I. David Goodkind's relatives, but there are aunts, uncles, a sister, a daughter, cousins, grandparents and second cousins galore, almost a bewildering assortment, some wise and good, some feckless and unlucky, but all of them family, all of them absolute members of the Inside.
As for the '30s, Wouk has succeeded in writing it a torch song, if of a distinctly Manhattan variety. He is even more successful at the kaddish that is said for the father of I. David Goodkind.
As for Goodkind himself, he changes over the years. Never a true hedonist or unbeliever, he grows a lot more devout, a little stuffier, somewhat more generous, and a trifle complacent. In other words, he grows both up and older and, as he does, he remembers. And I must add that he remembers wonderfully well.