Few novelists bring such depth of experience to their writing as does Herman Wouk in The Caine Mutiny. The author, who served aboard a Pacific minesweeper during World War II, speaks in gritty, authoritative detail that makes a feast of this 1951 Pulitzer-Prize winner.
Wouk’s main character, Willie Keith, is a rich, spoiled Princeton elitist assigned to a rusty old World War I destroyer commissioned for minesweeping duty. The ship is barely seaworthy, the captain permissive, his crew slovenly. The communications officer spends most of his time writing a novel that he hopes will make him famous after the war.
Disgusted with his assignment, Willie is relieved at first when a new commander takes over. But Philip Queeg’s draconian discipline, peculiar habits and irrational behavior send morale plummeting. The officers’ resentment comes to a head during a typhoon, during which the executive officer takes command of the ship.
The glamour and heroism pervading most World War II novels are rare in this one. The sailors are mostly ignorant, foul-mouthed, and whiny. The officers struggle to stay awake through long, dull deck watches, choking on stack gas and using their shore leave to go on drunken, lecherous binges. Yet somehow, the battered old Caine stays afloat.
Wouk develops his characters with such skill that the reader finds himself both hating and sympathizing with their shortcomings. Though Queeg is the catalyst for all that goes awry aboard the Caine, the novel is really about Willie Keith, a green ensign forced to grow up rapidly in dire circumstances. Meanwhile, his heart remains back home with a beautiful lounge singer with whom he has begun a scratchy romance.
The profane Naval language in this novel forces me to limit my rating to four stars. If you can overlook that factor, you will find The Caine Mutiny one of the most engrossing novels in American literature.