January 17, 2012

It started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship

A lighting review of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (New York: Doubleday, 1951). Paperback, 498 pp.

Rebelling against his over-ambitious and overprotective parents, Willie Keith joins the Navy during World War II. After a rocky start at officer's school, in which he gets a reputation as an immature underachiever, he receives a commission aboard the USS Caine, a WWI-era destroyer converted into a minesweeper. Conditions aboard are hellish, morale is low, and in Keith's estimation, the captain is negligent. For Captain de Vriess' part, he thinks the same of Keith after he mislays an important coded message for three days.

De Vriess is soon transferred to another post. His replacement is Commander Philip F. Queeg, whose strict, by-the-book command style is just what Keith thinks the Caine and its crew need. However, the ship's officers and crew soon become disillusioned with Queeg, who deals out harsh discipline even for minor infractions, blames the crew for his own ineptitude, and obsesses over tiny details while neglecting more important matters. For example, while dressing down a crewman, the officer of the deck and morale officer Keith for the crewman's untucked shirt, he neglects to order the helmsman to correct course, resulting in the Caine steaming full circle and cutting its own tow cable. Queeg had previously blasted the same helmsman for making needed course changes without express orders.

The ship's executive officer, Steve Maryk, learns of an obscure naval regulation that allows for a captain to be removed from his post if he is mentally ill and incapable of command. With Queeg becoming increasingly irrational and paranoid, Maryk begins logging his actions. It's only a matter of time before he or the other officers of the Caine withstand Queeg to his face.

Herman Wouk based this classic novel on his own experiences on a similar minesweeper-destroyer during WWII. He notes, in a disclaimer, that the captains he served with were honorable men and the mutiny aboard the fictitious Caine is not based on any real-life events. It's less a war novel than a coming-of-age novel, as Willie Keith matures—as a naval officer, a lover, and a man. I could find no fault with The Caine Mutiny of consequence. Read it!

The 1954 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Queeg is also worth noting. It is generally true to the novel, though abridged. It also makes Queeg into a more morally ambiguous character—in Wouk's novel, it's clear that Queeg is paranoid, incompetent, and manipulative. In the movie, by the time of Maryk's court martial, you start to feel sympathy for Queeg, as though he is more sinned against than sinning.