In April, Beverly Cleary will be 100 years old. Long, long ago, Cleary’s books about Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy basically taught me to read. Two decades later in graduate school at Cornell University, I chatted over drinks with the world’s greatest scholar of English romantic poetry, the then recently retired M.H. Abrams, author of “The Mirror and the Lamp.” Abrams died less than a year ago at the age of 102, having brought out his last collection of essays in 2012. The versatile Columbia scholar Jacques Barzun died that same year at age 104, a little over a decade after he published his best-selling “From Dawn to Decadence” at 93.
To this company of long-lived legends, one should add novelist Herman Wouk (born in 1915). In “Sailor and Fiddler,” he offers a “reminiscent glance” at both his writing career (the “Sailor”) and his Jewish spiritual journey (the “Fiddler”). The little book’s prose is strong and clear, and Wouk comes across as still a fairly lively fellow. Apart from the shattering death of his first son at the age of 5, he’s also led an enviable life. In his 20s, he spent five years as a gagman for the great radio comic Fred Allen, a period he sums up as “a long dream in a feather bed.” During the Second World War, he served in the Pacific onboard a minesweeper, which provided him with material for his great “crazy captain book,” “The Caine Mutiny.” It received the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was later transformed into a celebrated play and movie.
Oddly enough, Wouk never mentions his Pulitzer. Nor the fact that Humphrey Bogart played Captain Queeg in the film. He does, however, offer a neat summing-up of the immensely charismatic Charles Laughton, who directed the play version, retitled “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial”: “Ugly as sin, inordinately fat, world-famous, triumphant, a terrible flop, Captain Bligh, Quasimodo, Henry Higgins, King Lear, a stooge for a TV puppet, L’Avare at the Comedie Francaise.” Wouk’s wife, Sarah, detested Laughton: “Penetrating the Brobdingnagian façade, she found a crafty manipulator.” While the young author recognized that Sarah — both his first reader and later his literary agent — was right, Wouk nonetheless remained spellbound by the legendary actor.
Sarah Wouk, who died in 2011 at age 90, is really the only other character in “Sailor and Fiddler.” In truth, these bare-bones recollections almost demand to be fleshed out. We do hear a little about the writer’s parents and his early passion for the works of Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas, we’re told of his friendship with Calder Willingham, now remembered more for his screenplays (“Patton,” “The Graduate”) than for his wonderful novels (“Rambling Rose,” “Eternal Fire” ), and there are tantalizing allusions throughout to the world’s great and good. Wouk, for example, attended Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural festivities and at one point noticed the president being given a dispatch, probably about Vietnam and probably containing bad news. Just then, “Lyndon Johnson happened once to glance up and meet my look. The cold-veiled eyes of a master politician scared me.” That’s it. One hungers for more, please. Instead the book continues with its record of a successful, upper-middle-brow literary career.
That sounds unkind, but isn’t meant to be. Like such contemporaries as James Michener and Allen Drury — both of whom, it’s worth remembering, also won fiction Pulitzers — Wouk at his best produced powerful and memorable stories of American life. “Marjorie Morningstar” described its Jewish heroine’s romantic dreams of stardom, while “Youngblood Hawke” chronicled the rise and fall of a young Southern novelist, loosely based on Thomas Wolfe. Above all, in “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” — referred to here as the “Main Task” — he depicted two families caught up in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. In the 1980s, the connected novels were made into an exceptionally popular television mini-series, with a cast of international stars, headed by Robert Mitchum and featuring the young Jane Seymour and Sharon Stone.
As Wouk makes clear, his successes on Broadway and the bestseller lists allowed him to live very well. An apartment on Central Park in New York. A house in the Caribbean. Not least, a Georgetown address here in Washington in the 1960s and ’70s. In later life, Wouk and his wife traveled regularly to Israel, where they enjoyed entree into the highest social and political circles. Even now, the centenarian author resides in ritzy Palm Springs, Calif. Not too shabby for “a fat short baby-faced classroom clown” from the Bronx.
In the book’s much briefer “Fiddler” section, Wouk outlines his strong convictions about his religion and heritage. As early as 1959, he had published a best-selling primer to Judaism called “This is My God.” By the 1980s and ’90s, his fiction began to focus more and more on Israel. “Inside, Outside,” was a serio-comic account of a tax lawyer, from a family much like Wouk’s own, who ends up working for Richard Nixon, ultimately exercising unexpected political influence during the Yom Kippur War; it earned Wouk a letter — reprinted here — from Joseph Heller, who called the book, “Funny, warm, perceptive,” as well as “exuberantly instructive.” It gave him, Heller said, “a greater respect for the devotional attitudes underlying our Jewish religious observances than I have ever had in my life.” Two subsequent novels, “The Hope” and “The Glory,” closely track modern Israeli history. The latter appeared, we are dryly told, to “lackluster sales and reviews.”
In his epilogue to “Sailor and Fiddler,” Wouk alludes to “a frank private diary” of more than 100 bound volumes. He hints that some day it might be edited for publication by one of his two surviving sons. Perhaps its pages contain just those anecdotes, conversations and sheer gossip that give so much zest to the memoirs of the famous. As it stands, “Sailor and Fiddler” is enjoyable but a little bland, serving chiefly to reintroduce Wouk’s novels to contemporary readers who might only know their names, if that. As a teenager, I myself devoured “The Caine Mutiny,” passed over “Marjorie Morningstar” as a “girl’s book” and, a few years later, completely missed “Youngblood Hawke,” which knowledgeable friends assure me is a compelling portrait of the literary life in 1940s and ’50s New York. These, I suspect, are the Herman Wouk books that may survive and possibly attract a new generation. That may seem little enough to Wouk himself, but we should all be so lucky.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Herman Wouk
Simon and Schuster. 141 pp. $20