Last year, Stephen King titled a short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive.” Well, it’s time for an update. Not only is Herman Wouk still alive, now age 97, he has just published a new novel, “The Lawgiver” (Simon & Schuster).
Not only that. “The Lawgiver” is considerably lighter — both in weight and in tone — than the hefty, epic-length books Wouk is best known for: his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Caine Mutiny” (1951); his wildly popular coming-of-age tale, “Marjorie Morningstar” (1955); and the World War II sagas “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978). In addition to being bestsellers, those works further entered public consciousness through highly successful dramatizations on film (Humphrey Bogart as Caine’s tyrannical Captain Queeg; Natalie Wood as the love-struck Marjorie) and TV (Robert Mitchum starring in each of the memorable network miniseries made from Wouk’s WWII chronicles). But whether read on the page or viewed on screen, despite occasional glints of humor, none of those dramas could be said to be laugh-fests.
So who would have expected “The Lawgiver” to be a light-hearted romp, easily read in an evening? Or for its plot to turn on the back-stage machinations, romantic escapades, and other assorted mishegas related to the making of a contemporary Hollywood film about Moses, to be called (what else) “The Lawgiver?”
Then again, why shouldn’t an author, even (or perhaps especially) at the age of 97, try something different?
Moreover, from a biographical perspective, this isn’t as much of a departure for Wouk as it might initially appear. For his mega-hit novels, Wouk drew on the 1930s New York Jewish milieu in which he came of age and on his naval experiences during World War II. For “The Lawgiver,” he has simply taken inspiration from a different part of his life: his pre-World War II career as a radio comedy writer for Fred Allen and other comedians.
As for the movie biz, whose wheeling-dealings form a central part of “The Lawgiver,” the big and small screen successes of his novels provide his Hollywood bona fides. And making Moses the subject of the novel’s would-be film also seems a natural for Wouk, who has written three nonfiction books about Judaism and Jewish observance (he is Modern Orthodox), “This Is My God” (1959), “The Will To Live On” (2000), and “The Language God Talks” (2010). He also refers at several points in the novel to the real-life personal journal he has kept since 1937 (he has donated the volumes, which number more than 100, to the Library of Congress). Oh yes, and Wouk has additional fun mixing life with fiction by including both himself and his wife Betty Sarah Wouk (who died before “The Lawgiver” was completed) as characters in the story.
That makes for a lot of themes to pack into a short novel. The good news is that even all these decades later, Wouk’s radio script muse still broadcasts loud and clear, with dialogue that, for the most part, buzzes along with the rat-tat-tat pacing of a 1930s screwball comedy. And if the plot starts to feel like a handful of extended skits tangled together, well, that’s also a legacy of the radio comedy show genre.
The story begins when seemingly washed-up Hollywood mogul Tim Warshaw approaches Wouk to write a screenplay about the life of Moses. Wouk declines; he’s finally making headway on the novel he has been struggling with for years — yup, a book about Moses — and can’t spare the time to do more than act as a special consultant. Enter wunderkind screenwriter Margo Solovei, who has rejected her family’s chasidic traditions but still yearns for a nice Jewish boy for a husband. Could that be Margo’s former boy friend, the hotshot lawyer Josh Levin, who is brought in to resolve the film’s long list of legal and financial difficulties? Or will that starring role go to aspiring actor Perry Pines, the handsome (but non-Jewish) sheep farmer from Australia chosen to play the role of that other one-time shepherd, Moses?
Instead of using a straightforward narrative to tell this tale, Wouk lets it unfold, documentary-style, through journal entries, letters, memos, e-mails, text messages, production notes, film drafts, newspaper clips and transcripts of telephone and Skype conversations. In that regard, the novel reminded me of an old-fashioned epistolary novel — except that here, characters mix pen-and-paper letter writing with all manner of new-fangled technology. It’s a clever if awkward device that keeps the action moving even when the actual making of the movie is stalled, but it can be difficult to keep track of, or differentiate between, several characters that aren’t given much to do besides shoot memos back and forth.
Wouk’s central focus, however, is the character — and the idea — of Moses as lawgiver. “The Torah narrative is not popcorn amusement for dating teenagers … no other story compares to it,” he declares. “The New Testament rests on it, the Koran recapitulates it, the whole world reads it.”
Mini-interpretations abound, as when Margo writes in her production notes, “Moses the self-doubting Deliverer, believing in God but never in himself … that’s the face of the Lawgiver I see and was never taught.” Torah commentary even comes in the form of a laugh line, as when Hollywood execs argue over “Why Moses and Aaron got punished so harshly. Never to enter the Promised Land! What did they do that was so terrible?”
And one of the producers pleads, “Please keep God’s lines short and few! God doesn’t play well, He’s all CGI [computer generated imagery] effects at best, and the audience is on to those, especially the teenagers. We don’t want God getting laughs.”
Well, as the Yiddish saying goes, God laughs and man plans. But Wouk’s laughter is that of a writer having fun at the age of 97 — and beyond.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges,” and writes frequently for The Wall Street Journal and other national publications.