For authors who keep on writing into old age, both their strengths and their weaknesses tend to become exaggerated (as can their critical reception, either pro or con). The Lawgiver, the latest novel of Herman Wouk, the ninety-seven-year-old author of Marjorie Morningstar and The Winds of War, is a case in point.
A religious Jew, Wouk has been among the most popular and prolific novelists in American history, yet he counted among his regrets the fact that he never wrote a book about Moses.
Now here it is. Not far from his eleventh decade, he has produced a novel that deals, if only obliquely, with the Biblical patriarch. Wouk’s more immediate subject is one Margo Solovei. A Hollywood film director known for making small-scale comedies, Margo has been charged by Louis Gluck, an Australian mining tycoon, with making a big budget spectacular about the central figure of the Book of Exodus. Charming and plucky but hardly the outsized tyrannical personality that such a task might ordinarily call for, our heroine fears that she is in over her head. This is not her only concern. Through the course of Wouk’s story, Margo must also resolve her unconsummated yearning for Josh Lewin, a corporate lawyer whom she met years earlier.
Wouk offers his story in epistolary form, and he includes himself as a subsidiary character, an advisor on the prospective motion picture. Trying to keep current, Wouk uses Skype call transcripts, emails, and text messages.
What results is reflective of the author’s long career, one that commenced with the publication in 1947 of Aurora Dawn, an affectionate lampoon of the world of radio. That novel was soon followed by his hugely successful and extremely funny The Caine Mutiny, an account of larger-than-life happenings among a group of sailors on a naval minesweeper during the Second World War.
Though The Caine Mutiny was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, this was the first and last major literary honor its author received. As Wouk’s next novels sold in the millions, his reputation among the cognoscenti plunged, and he was mocked for his repeated use of unexpected plot twists and his desire to entertain.
In this regard, his career has been something like that of Somerset Maugham. Enormous success with the reading public over many decades has proceeded hand-in-hand with adaptations of his books into widely seen plays, miniseries, and movies. All this came with a habit of publishing often, and not always with a strict standard of quality. For those who are envious of their earnings or hostile to their politics, of course, this offered ammunition.
Thus, in 1998, when a panel of judges for the Modern Library issued their list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, they placed Of Human Bondage just sixty-sixth while placing a Steinbeck novel in the top ten. Wouk, needless to say, was entirely absent from the survey.
But what Wouk, like Maugham, offers at his best is that which is in such rare supply in even the most trumpeted fiction: complex and recognizable characters, humanely depicted in tales with involving, well-crafted plots. One wishes that this union of first-rate psychology and storytelling was not so uncommon and that it was afforded more regard.
I regret to say that The Lawgiver will not do much to persuade those who have sneered at Wouk. The book is ripe with improbability. Though Margo is a movie director living in Beverly Hills, she is a virgin. This is as likely nowadays, I suspect, as a filmmaker who arrives on set each morning in horse and buggy. Moreover, all the characters, like their author, are great lovers of classic fiction, and they take for granted not that their twenty- and thirty-something peers have watched “The Sopranos” and attended Jay-Z concerts, but that they have read Shaw’s letters. Equally implausibly, one character asks another to be her bridesmaid though they have been no more than pen pals.
Lacking is the remarkable attention to detail that distinguished the author’s exhaustively researched war novels. Missing as well is the precision in describing characters who obviously had living models, something that further elevated those volumes. Yet his usually appealing affection for his characters is here almost cloying.
The humor of his earlier books, which would have cut though the sugar, is absent. Employed as a staff comedy writer for the radio personality Fred Allen before he wrote his first novel, Wouk has always had a good sense of timing in telling a joke. He shared this talent with his contemporaries and fellow war veterans Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. These two men lacked Wouk’s ability to describe three-dimensional people in their novels, and one is inclined to wonder why their reputations so far exceeded his. Was this simply politics? Or was it that they had a knack for self-promotion that he has lacked? Whatever the cause, the time for a re-ordering of reputations is overdue. It may be time to admit that, for all his popularity and in spite of his flaws, Wouk was the best American novelist to write about the Second World War. I would suggest, though, that interested readers skip The Lawgiver—unless they’re looking for writing of the same weight as The Devil Wears Prada.