Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pulitzer Project: The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1952. It's one of those books that is so well known I'm moderately amazed, at least in retrospect, that I'd never read it before. Its widespread popularity as well as the fact it was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1954 contributed to it adding a couple of stock characters and phrases to American culture. If you have a tyrannical, irrational boss, he's a Captain Queeg. Queeg is, of course, the character Humphrey Bogart portrayed in the film, the crazy guy who can't stop rolling two steel marbles around in his hand.

Actually, it's quite possible that the film is what kept me from reading the book. I've never seen the film but have seen clips from it numerous times. The clips inevitably are from the court martial scene and show Bogart playing with those marbles. It may be an iconic scene, but it is not a particularly good representation of the book. If all you've ever seen is that courtroom scene, you'll think that the book is about a mutiny and the trial that followed. You'd be wrong.

The Caine Mutiny is actually a coming of age story, the tale of a gormless Naval Reserve officer who goes from being a naive young idiot to a mature human being. Yes, Captain Queeg is a major character in that story, and, yes, there is a mutiny (sort of), but the real center of the narrative is Willie Keith, a pampered Princeton graduate who goes from being a smart-alecky immature ass to an actual adult who finally figures out how to think for himself. Of course, it takes 3 years of sea duty and almost getting killed by a kamikaze attack for that process to happen, but Willie does finally grow up.

When the book opens, Willie is starting officer training in New York. He's the pampered only son of wealthy parents -- his father is a respected surgeon and his mother inherited money -- who also happened to be a good student at Princeton. He's got some minor musical talent so had drifted into playing a piano in a nightclub while trying to figure out what do with his life. Maybe. At that point in the story, the reader gets the feeling that if there hadn't been a war on, Willie would have been content to be a second rate lounge act while living at home with his parents indefinitely. He was thinking about grad school, but losing interest the longer he hung around nightclubs. As it was, he wasn't allowed to just drift aimlessly: the U.S. Navy had plans for him.

He comes close to washing out of training but manages to knuckle down and squeak through. When the time comes to put in a request for the type of assignment he'd like, he does what everyone does -- puts in for sea duty while hoping to never leave dry land. And, like everyone else, he fantasizes that if he does end up assigned to a ship it'll be one of the big ones -- a carrier or a battleship. No such luck. He draws duty on a minesweeper, a converted World War I destroyer, DMS-21, the USS Caine.

Once he sees the Caine, he has the same reaction as everyone else assigned to the ship: he immediately makes plans to apply for a transfer as soon as possible. His initial impression of the ship reminded me a lot of the tv series "McHale's Navy." The ship's commander seems too laid-back, too casual, almost slovenly. The crew is remarkably casual about the way they dress. The ship itself strikes Willie as being barely one step above a garbage scow. It's dirty, it's cluttered, it looks a lot like a floating disaster. It doesn't help that Willie has been lucky enough to get stuck at Pearl Harbor for 6 weeks waiting for the Caine to return to port. He's had too many nights of hitting the bars and parties with other officers waiting to report to wherever they're supposed to go. His first view of the minesweeper occurs on a morning when he's had almost no sleep the night before and is thoroughly hungover. Not surprisingly, he spends his first couple of weeks on board silently hating the captain for having the nerve to expect Willie to actually do his job.

At this point, it would have been easy for Wouk to continue with the Caine as a floating assemblage of odd balls and characters with a lovable scamp of a captain. Willie could have gradually been integrated into a comic novel, a light-hearted look at the war that would have been a change from some of the grimmer novels being published at the time. Instead Wouk wrote laid-back Captain de Vries out of the picture and brought in Queeg. And that's when things get interesting. It takes a few hundred pages of "interesting," but eventually the novel gets to the mutiny -- which isn't really a mutiny -- and the Navy courtroom.

According to the brief bio on the back of the book, the author served on two minesweepers during the war. How much of the novel is autobiographical is one of those questions that can't be answered. My own hunch is that if there's anything autobiographical in the text, Wouk split personal traits between several different characters. There is, for example, a slightly older officer, a fellow one or two grades above Willie Keith, who is an aspiring novelist. He had a number of short stories published before the war and is working on a novel through most of the book. He does a lot of talking about how his novel will be different from the other war novels being published -- novels with a war theme had started appearing in book stores almost before the fires were out at Pearl Harbor. Wouk himself wrote a novel during the war, Aurora Dawn, that became a Book of the Month Club selection. That book drew on his experiences working as a writer for the Fred Allen radio show before the war.

Until I began writing this review, I'd forgotten just how many best sellers Wouk has written (I'm using the present tense because as of this morning, he's still breathing. He's 99). I'd even read one or two: Marjorie Morningstar, for example, His other novels include The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. His novels are meticulously researched, and he can write. This is one of those rare Pulitzer winners that I can actually recommend: it's more than readable. I wouldn't put it into quite the same class as All the King's Men -- Wouk is good, but his prose doesn't sing the way Robert Penn Warren's does -- but it's definitely at least a 9 on the usual 1-10 scale.

Next up? William Faulkner's A Fable, which won in 1955. There was no prize awarded in 1954, and I've already read the 1953 winner, The Old Man and the Sea. Although maybe I should re-read the Hemingway -- it was a high school reading assignment so I'm not sure it counts now.


  1. Read the Hemingway, even though I don't care for him that much. I have been reading and rereading "good" books lately, and I'm struck by how much more I enjoy some of them now rather than years ago when I read them under duress. I like your project.


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