Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (1951, Doubleday)

Willie Sewell Keith is a rich kid fooling around as a nightclub pianist after getting a degree from Princeton. Shortly before being drafted into the Navy he meets and falls in love with May Wynn, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Keith struggles through Navy school, in part through folly, in part distracted by May, before being shipped out West. He misses the connection to his ship the USS Caine, a destroyer minesweeper, and spends six months on admin duties in Pearl Harbour, playing piano at an Admiral’s parties. When the USS Caine does arrive he discovers it’s a rusty, dilapidated wreck with a lacklustre crew and a cranky captain. Worse follows, with the skipper replaced by Captain Queeg, a cowardly, incompetent, disciplinarian with an inferiority complex and a vindictive streak. So begins fifteen months of hell for the officers and sailors of USS Caine as Queeg becomes increasingly paranoid, persecutes his crew, and blames everyone but himself for various mishaps. Things come to a head in a typhoon, with the ship at risk of capsizing, when the executive officer, backed-up by Keith, relieves Queeg of his command. The act of mutiny leads to a court-martial hearing, just at the point where Keith’s relationship with May is floundering. The officer’s futures are on the line, but there’s a difference between seizing control because a captain is believed to be mentally ill and because he’s sane but deeply unpopular, spiteful and inept.

Published in 1951, just six years after the end of the Second World War, Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is considered one of the best expositions of the moral complexities of wartime service. The tale is a coming of age tale of Willie Sewell Keith, a rich, Princeton-educated, young man who is drafted into the Navy and sent to serve on the USS Caine, a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific. Keith is confronted with a number of moral issues during his three years of service, principally centred on his relationship to May Wynn, a nightclub singer from a different social class and religion, and dealing with his scheming, malicious boss, Captain Queeg who makes the lives of everyone serving under him hell. Wouk’s novel excels at both character development and plot. He creates rich, multi-layered portraits of Keith, May Wynn, Queeg, and the crew of the USS Caine, and the evolving relationships between characters. While the opening is somewhat drawn out, once Keith is at sea the plot is very nicely constructed with a series of incidents that builds tension and momentum to the critical showdown, the Caine mutiny. What follows is an excellent set of court scenes. Rather than wrap things up neatly at this point, Wouk spins out the tale to the end of the war, nicely rounding out the tale. The prose and dialogue is excellent. The result is an engaging, thought-provoking story that provides a real sense of life in the navy (clearly informed by Wouk’s own time serving on destroyer minesweepers in the Pacific) and the characters who populate the story.


Todd Mason said...

Well, this gained an unwelcome timeliness, didn't it?

Rob Kitchin said...

yes, unfortunately, though 103 is a good old age.