Sunday, January 17, 2016

Book Review: The Caine Mutiny

Maudlin, melodramatic, simple, cliche...all of these MIGHT be used to describe parts of The Caine Mutiny...they'd all be partly right and all be significantly wrong.

Some 500+ pages in length this Pulitzer Prize winning work is easy to read.  There are no verbal flourishes or complex structures--yet it fleshes out its characters in ways most novels only aspire to without leaving the reader wishing for plot progress.

Its supposed "main" character is Willie Keith, a young sailor who is an upperclass, spoiled, WASP from NY.  Wouk doesn't shy away from showing all the prejudices of the times (WWII era), blacks, jews, gays, Catholics, women in general, etc. are all viewed as lower than ideal--yet, this is where the book is most progressive.  It is the Jew who rescues Willie Keith and his friend, Maryk during their court martial hearings.  It is May Wynn, the poor Catholic girl, who Willie turns to and away from his WASP mother at the end of the novel.  It is the blacks who stand by and hold their positions on the ship while the white captain jumps overboard to save his precious novel.

At the time the novel was written and following very popular movie made (which I have not seen to date) WWII was only six years behind the audience in 1951.  Likely they were more thrilled with the prospect of reading about the actions on board a minesweeper in the midst of the Pacific War than they were in hearing of the social inequities and conflicts to come foreshadowed here (JFK's election as the first Catholic president, Civil Rights and Women's Rights battles to come) and if someone wants to point out instances of where these parts of the novel were brought up at the time of its publishing you can certainly do so.  To me it seems a book about 15 years ahead of its time.

That said, The Caine Mutiny is also a supremely entertaining novel.  Largely without battles or military conflict one might think of in a book occurring during WWII, the Caine (a decrepit WWI era destroyer) is relegated to menial duties--towing targets, escorting other, more important ships, etc. It is the personal conflict between the crew of the Caine (and particularly the primary protagonist, Willie Keith and his close crewmates) and its Captain Queeg, that move the story forward.  Herman Wouk's portrayal of a nit-picking, paranoid, under-educated, over-promoted captain is one so famous that the term "Captain Queeg" has become synonymous with virtually any overbearing boss, and rightly so.  I would encourage any business person to read this novel and see if they don't recognize a few Captain Queegs in their own organizations.  In fact, the novel may be an excellent educational tool for businesses in teaching management that any rigid adherence to regulation, focus on the minutia of process vs. the evidence of result can be a significant detriment to a staff and its efficiency.

Lastly, the book is a great, if brief, love story.  Largely "book-ending" the novel as it were, the romance between Willie Keith and May Wynn is far from ornamental.  As Willie grows from spoiled, ignorant, prejudiced boy to a man who can see the "grey" areas that exist in relationships and life in general, so does his relationship with May grow from careless dalliance between an immature sailor departing for war to one of respect and true love for the whole person that May represents.

Couldn't recommend this novel more highly.

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