The Caine Mutiny is one of those books that has simply been in the ether lately. I saw it mentioned in several different places over a one week period (technically it was the movie being referenced, but close enough), and eventually my interest was sufficiently piqued to check it out. The story follows a young man named Willie Keith from his beginnings as a rich layabout slumming as a nightclub pianist, through midshipman school to life aboard a minesweeper called the Caine. It is here Willie meets Captain Queeg, an outsized character whose megalomania, cowardice, and paranoid persecution complex have drawn apt political comparisons of late.
Willie is not actually the pivotal character in the eponymous mutiny, but rather something between an active participant and an observer. Yet it is his perspective that provides the lynchpin for the story, despite its willingness to venture off into different perspectives where necessary. Wouk rounds out the story with a rich cast of supporting characters, including Maryk, a dutiful lieutenant and former fisherman who becomes a reluctant mutineer; Keefer, an erudite writer who resents Queeg but lacks the courage to oust him; and May Wynn, a nightclub singer and daughter of a lower class fruit vendor, who plays the role of star-crossed lover for Willie.
In a foreword provided by my edition of the novel, Wouk notes that the book initially received a lukewarm reception, and that its success coincided with that of another book about the Pacific theater in World War II: From Here to Eternity by James Jones. The superficial comparisons are obvious, but the books actually offer a significant contrast to one another. Jones’ prose is more lyrical, his tone darker and more fatalistic. Wouk injects a fair bit of comedy into his novel, and while it falls short of satire, there is a broadness to some of the characters that reminded me, in their most extreme moments, of Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms (though never reaching the zany intensity of Catch-22)
Robert E Lee Prewitt is also a much different protagonist than Willie Keith, with the former being a hard-bitten ex-boxer from a poor southern family, and the latter a rich northern Princeton grad whose status consciousness causes him much inner turmoil. Prewitt is a man aged beyond his years, Willie a boy in a man’s body who goes to sea to grow up. The ultimate fates of the two characters is about what you’d expect.
The book was gripping in its rich use of detail, first of life at sea, and later of the legalities of the court martial process. Wouk clearly knows his stuff, and presents it in a way that feels natural. I look forward to reading his other war novels.