My Favorite Martian
Herman Wouk, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny way back in 1951 and later gifted heartland America with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, among other pop-culture landmarks, has just come out with a new novel at the preposterous—not to say preposterously entertaining—age of 97. The Lawgiver, it's called, and I seriously doubt book critics will decide this is their chance to take Wouk to the woodshed. Frankly, none of us wants to learn our withering review was the one clutched in his hand when ... well, you get the picture.
Me, I wouldn't dream of making fun of The Lawgiver. Its mere existence leaves me too charmed for sober judgment. Even your instant scorn won't affect my affection for industrious, unfashionable Herman Wouk, who's seen more trampoline-happy hares soar past him in the Jewish-American literary firmament than any Pulitzer-winning tortoise you could name.
I was itching to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard this thingamabob was a novel featuring a bunch of Hollywoodites trying to make a movie about Moses—one told, incredibly, entirely via emails, faxes, Skype transcripts, and the like. Had I known that one of its major characters is none other than crotchety, nonagenarian (but Skype-using!) Herman Wouk, who's engaged on his own long-mulled novel about Moses when La-La-land comes calling, my eagerness would have made the average chimes-at-midnight Harry Potter fan look like an amateur.
To quote one of my least favorite plays, attention must be paid to such a man. It would be an understatement to say that Wouk's deeply square religious, political, and literary values are far from mine—and presumably yours, good TAP reader. But the day I stop appreciating their sturdiness will make me the poorer as a human being. We all benefit from having one uncle like that, and he's been one of mine since adolescence. Raised by liberal nonbelievers as I was, he affected me like a kindly Martian.
With nephewlike indulgence, I dote to this day on his Luddite social mores, including an Old Testament sternness about sex outside marriage that flies in the face of nearly a century—and that's just the part he's seen firsthand, ba-da-bum—of observable, randy American reality. I'm even delighted by how, obeying the proscription against taking YHWH's name in vain, Wouk's always having supposedly sophisticated WASP characters exclaim "Ye gods!" by way of compromise. Back when the miniseries version of the The Winds of War came out, I'm sure the Village Voice's readers were nonplussed by "Their Finest 18 Hours," my downright gushy review.
They can go screw. I was and am enchanted beyond words that this earnest (but far from humorless), straitlaced, profoundly devout Jew made it his sub-Tolstoyan mission to be the definitive fictional chronicler of the American Century's defining martial epic—justifying the ways of goys to man and man to goys, you could say. Don't forget that he succeeded, at least with more millions of goys than Philip Roth ever did. To say that The Winds of War isn't as good as Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five (news flash: it isn't) is as irrelevant to Wouk's simultaneously lower and higher purpose as saying that Gone With the Wind isn't as good as Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
As for The Lawgiver itself, it's amusing and at least partly intentionally dotty. Wouk or "Wouk'"'s negotiations with the odd assortment of folks who want to bankroll a Moses film soon cede center stage to the interpersonals provoked by his heroine, one Margo Solovei—the Lena Dunham-esque (honest) young filmmaker who's got to figure out how to put her father's revered Moishe Rabenu on-screen in a way palatable to 21st-century audiences. Even though she and her friends communicate via modern means, they're all throwbacks to another time, something Wouk himself acknowledges by having Margo compare herself to Marjorie Morningstar—the eponymous 1950s heroine of his most heartfelt novel.
Personally, I'd love to believe—and why wouldn't you feel the same?—that there are 21st-century Hasidic gals who got their knickers blown off by reading Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. But I doubt they went on to attend Barnard, enjoy off-Broadway hits, and success as indie filmmakers ... while remaining virgins, one of Margo's anxieties that Lena get-it-over-with Dunham would boggle at. One sign the author's mellowed is that he allows Margo no less than two rounds of premarital hunchy-punchy with her obvious one and only before hustling them under a chuppah posthaste. For old Wouk fans, it's a Nixon-goes-to-China moment if ever there was one.
My hunch is that Wouk knows how absurd all this is—a 97-year-old author who can make Huffington Post jokes is nobody to underestimate—and could care less. The Lawgiver is a deliberate, self-amused fairy tale about how the values he's lived his life by might survive him in some whacked-out form. In a perfect world, even Philip Roth might read it with tears in his eyes between snickers.
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