Required Reading: The Caine Mutiny
Sea-faring narratives are sometimes best left unexamined—their microcosms are full of unreasonably-named orientations ("fore," "aft," "portside," and … "yawp"?) and special codes of behavior and etiquette that make no sense at all to most landlubbers.
Nevertheless, I want to talk about Herman Wouk's naval coming-of-age story, The Caine Mutiny for two reasons:
- It used to be A Big Deal: It was anchored to the New York Times best-seller list for 122 weeks, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.
- It's pretty funny.
Summary: The draft! An aristocratic young man goes from piano-playing in New York to decoding directives aboard a leaky, rusting ship called the USS Caine, somewhere in the South Pacific. His coming-of-age has everything to do with surviving inhumane ordeals and constant run-ins with authority, authority, authority. As a new sailor, the protagonist can't do anything right for his captain, and just when he starts to figure things out, a new captain—the intolerable Captain Queeg—arrives. Queeg is so pathetically and maliciously insecure that the crew mutinies in the belief that Queeg is mentally ill.
Back in the 1950s, The Caine Mutiny resonated with a lot of people—those who'd been to war, those who'd served in the Navy, anyone who'd been in the chain of command or rebelled against it, and anyone who was struggling with rules of order, class, and paternal patriarchy could find something in this book. If anything, it may help you understand your grandparents.
So of course, The Caine Mutiny also reflects all the stupid offenses against humanity of its time: women (one mother, one lover) feature hardly at all, black people are caricatured as the ships stewards, and the whole story is an endless competition of one-upmanship, masculinity, and war. After all, it's about the Navy. So beware: it's typical required reading material.
But if you stumble upon it, or find yourself advising a young reader torn between The Caine Mutiny and say…The Great Gatsby, choose The Caine Mutiny. Here, the quest for masculinity is constantly lampooned, and after about 200 pages of jokes, The Caine Mutiny starts to get really interesting. In an about-face from bildungsroman to murky legal thriller, everyone from the hero to the reader begins to feel upset about no longer quite knowing who's good, who's bad, what mental illness really is, or what privilege and security really mean.
I liked The Caine Mutiny because it satirizes the military and the "man's man," and eventually poses some serious questions about justice and moral imperatives. It's also appropriate for the moment—only since 2010 have women been allowed to work in Navy submarines. Although the Pentagon will soon ease restrictions on women in combat, the ban continues on women in infantry, which keeps 200,000+ enlisted women out of promotions and leadership roles.
So for all the ladies in the service: Wouk's bitter caricatures of patriarchal authority, chased with a heavy dose of comedy.
"Queeg was at his desk, dressed in fresh clothes, his puffy face shaved and powdered. This struck Maryk as ominous.
He handed the captain the investigation report, headed:
'Strawberries, disappearance of—Report of board of investigation'.
Queeg, rolling two silver balls in his hand, read the typewritten sheets carefully."
Previously: A ______ of One's Own
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