Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Briefly Reviewed: The Caine Mutiny

When we moved into our house, we inherited a number of books, among them two fat volumes The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. I knew nothing of these, but since I was already starting to think about the idea of a massive novel of military history, I kept them around when we sold or donated many of the others. Reading about Wouk, I discovered that his most famous novel is actually The Caine Mutiny, which also has the virtue of being slightly shorter, so when I heard that Julie and Scott were going to be discussing The Caine Mutiny on A Good Story is Hard to Find, I decided it was time to dip in and see how Wouk's writing was.

The Caine Mutiny, published in 1951, is the most famous novel by Herman Wouk, who himself served on a destroyer mine sweeper (the same class of ship as the fictional Caine in the novel) during World War II. It follows the experiences of young Willie Keith, a young man with a Princeton education and a wealthy family who joins the navy mostly to avoid being drafted into the army.

[some mild spoilers follow but I've avoided revealing points of suspense]

Life in the navy quickly has a good effect on Keith, who before the war is wiling away his time playing piano in seedy nightclubs and dating a singer whom he strings along in a relationship despite being determined not to marry her left he embarrass his family.

However, when he's assigned to active duty after training Keith ends up on the Caine, a WW1 era destroyer made over as a minesweeper -- a rusty, obsolete ship with a captain Willie takes for a clod and a crew that tends to slovenliness. When a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Queeg is assigned to the Caine, Midshipman Keith hopes the new captain will whip things into shape and at last bring them into the "real navy". However, Captain Queeg's increasingly incompetent and paranoid behavior soon leads all the officers and crew to dislike him, and eventually his executive officer relieves of him duty on the grounds of mental illness in the titular "mutiny" when Queegs actions seem to endanger the ship's safety during a typhoon.

The novel goes on to deal with the trial of the officers for mutiny, the end of the war, and the resolution of Kieth's on-again-off-again romance with May Wynn, his girlfriend from before the war.

I enjoyed the book a lot. It kept me turning rapt throughout and I constantly found excuses to go back to it. It does interesting things with character and narrative. While told in the third person, and with omniscient elements, Keith is definitely our viewpoint character, and our understanding of various characters develops and changes significantly and Keith himself matures, learns his duty, and develops his understanding of the navy and of the war. Wouk's prose is a times dazzling, and there are some very evocative and perceptive sections of description dealing with the war and how the experiences of the men in it are shaped so much by their particular place and role. It's not great literature nor overly literary -- no one will rhapsodize about it as some sort of exotic prose confection -- but it's a well written book which you can definitely see earning it's Pulitzer. Lurking in the background is the sense of the import of the events. Wouk is a Jewish writer, and as narrator he a couple times turns back to the ongoing work of the holocaust going on in the background with little regard from the characters, except in a key speech by the Jewish lawyer and fight pilot who agrees to defend the Caine mutineers at their court martial.

The thing which I most wish Wouk had done a better job on was filling in some of what he assumed about the importance of the structure and running of the navy. Wouk does an almost gleeful job of showing us just how bad and unstable an officer Queeg is. And yet, the judgement of the author seems to be that relieving him of command is the wrong thing to do. As a civilian reader seventy years later, this seems almost shocking -- perhaps the more so because so many books and movies which include court martials resolve with the trope that of course the heroes were right to stand up as individuals against mindless obedience to authority. Maybe to 1951s audience with so many civilians who had spent a few years in the military recently, it seemed more obvious why Wouk came to this conclusion, but for me at this distance, I wish that he'd gone into it more deeply, and I want to understand it. Often, now that I'm at a level in a fairly large company where I see the working of executives frequently, the generic beefing of non-managers strikes me as failing to understand the way that things really work at that level. If I were going to try to do a business novel, one of my aims would be to try to make that insider's perspective more understandable to someone who hasn't been there.

With the WW2 navy, I haven't been there, and I wish that Wouk had assumed that a bit more and helped to put me through his thinking on the matter so that I could understand his perspective better.

I also enjoyed listening to Scott and Julie discuss the novel over at A Good Story is Hard to Find:


Julie D. said...

Thank you for the shout out. :-)

Yes, Wouk definitely does not do a good job of explaining enough of the Navy mindset on the points you mention. At least for me. I know that Willie Keith was supposed to be a window into that world but somehow it wasn't enough.

Banshee said...

The movie actually seems to bring across Wouk's point of view better. But there still seem to be some assumptions inherent in the story that modern life doesn't have. Loyalty and duty toward superiors, maybe.