“The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk is one of the few books where I enjoyed the first three fifths and the last fifth, but not the fourth. Which is to say that I thought it was a pretty good book except for one significant part. And, once again, it is the part where the author decides he wants to make a statement.
A quick synopsis: Ensign Willie Keith is assigned to a piece of junk in the South Pacific of WWII. Soon it is captained by Queeg, an incompetent coward, so abusive and insecure that his junior officers eventually mutiny. (I’m not giving anything away here folks – it’s in the title.) The mutiny is followed by a court martial, a verdict and a lecture (this is the section I don’t like), then by more war experiences that lead the mutineers to question their actions.
I understand that Wouk wants to make the point that the mutiny may not have been justifiable – that in fact it is a dangerous act because, as David Frum puts it so well in his own review, modern wars are won by systems, not individuals: The mutineers have endangered the system. But Wouk is so desperate to make the point that he turns it into a big speech by a battle-scarred hot shot veteran who is worried about the outcome of the war and the fate of his Jewish grandmother.
The scars and the religious elements give the speaker moral heft (how can we question him, he has suffered so?), but it’s overplayed. And the fact that the big scene is crucial to both the play and the movie made from the book underlines its inappropriateness in the novel: It’s good showmanship, but it’s not good storytelling. Heck, in the movie the scene is such a big deal that, apparently, they didn’t even bother filming the remainder of the book.
But storytelling is showing and, in novels, getting inside of characters’ heads, and Wouk is able to make his point in the final fifth of the novel, after the trial. Ensign Keith – through his own experiences – begins to doubt the wisdom of his actions and to see the value of the system that he upended.
The scene that defines the book, in fact, is the day he receives both an official reprimand for the mutiny and the bronze star for his later heroism. There’s the system in play, unaware of its own irony, but doing its job, and Ensign Keith carefully stores the two documents together, so his grandchildren – and we the readers – can puzzle it all out on our own.