Monday, May 16, 2005

Herman Wouk: seven decades as a young American writer

The other day I spotted The Caine Mutiny sitting uncomfortably in the Denver Public Library's "new books" section, and naturally wondered, since Caine was published in 1951, what it was doing there. Turns out it was in a display of Pulitzer Prize winners, but in a new (relatively--2003) paperback edition, with a preface by its author, Herman Wouk.

When Caine was published Wouk, who at 90 continues to write novels, had already written two of them, served on destroyer-minesweepers like the Caine (well, not like the Caine) and, from 1936 until the war, written jokes for one of the top radio comedians, Fred Allen.

Kids, sorry, but I'm one of those creepy and decrepit fans of old-time radio, so to me that last by itself is enough to make Wouk a national treasure: he worked in the first truly national medium, big-time radio, and he was one of the best at it.

And think of all the people he must have known--starting, just for kicks, with Bogart, who gave an indelible performance in the movie version of Caine. Bowsley Crowther thought it was bogart-like.

Not to mention that he wrote at least one of the finest American novels of World War II, War and Remembrance, and that throughout his career he's written about this country with (mostly, of course) affection and humor.

So where's the almost certainly great memoir? Actually, Wouk's preface for this Caine is an excerpt, he says, but adds that the story of his "literary life" itself he has "laid aside, to get on with that life by writing a new novel."

Now that is good old-fashioned American optimism.

Update: Shouldn't Wouk get, like, a medal or something? (Though he has been voted into some secret lodge going under the name of the "Academy of Achievement," which he probably isn't happy about.)

Update II: Here's the 1988 TV version of Caine starring Brad Davis as Captain Queeg. Surely I saw it, but I don't remember a thing.

Update III: Wait a minute. Brad Davis as the, er, ball-rolling Captain Queeg? No way I would forget that. And don't call me Shirley.

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