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: 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, and just when he starts to figure things out, the new Captain Queeg arrives, a boss so pathetically and maliciously insecure that his subordinates wonder if he’s mentally ill.
Sound familiar? 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. (Of course, The Caine Mutiny also reflects all the stupid offenses against humanity of its time, too.)
If you find yourself advising a young reader torn between The Caine Mutiny and say…The Great Gatsby, choose this. Here, the quest for masculinity is constantly lampooned, and after about 200 pages of jokes, The Caine Mutiny starts to get really interesting by posing some serious questions about justice and hierarchy: appropriate for the moment since 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.
Follow the book’s about-face from bildungsroman to legal thriller and feel good about not quite knowing who’s good, who’s bad, what mental illness really is, and what security really means.
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