A small confession: When I learned that Herman Wouk had written a new novel, I was taken by surprise. I actually thought he was dead. Turns out, he is very much alive – 97 years young. At 97, you get points for writing your name, never mind a novel.
That said, The Lawgiver is going to suffer by comparison with other members of the Woukian canon – The Caine Mutiny (Pulitzer Prize), Marjorie Morningstar, Youngblood Hawke, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.
But let’s cut to the Red Sea chase.
In the beginning, to coin a phrase, Wouk wants to write a novel about Moses – yes, that lawgiver – perhaps narrated by his brother Aaron, interlocutor in the Pharaonic negotiations for custody of the oppressed Israelites. The keyboard keys duly click, but, alas, nothing else does. Into the cabinet go his working notes, the greatest story never told.
Then lo, one day, Wouk is struck by a flash of divine inspiration. Scrap the Giza plateau and the burning bushes of Midian. Set the story in modern day. Craft a comedic plot line about an eccentric, contentious cast (now there’s a tautology) of Hollywood producers, directors, actors, agents, lawyers and an octogenarian Australian financier (a comparatively young man), trying to make a biblical epic about Moses.
The film will be Cecil B. DeMille redux, only this time the Egyptian army will drown in a sea of 21st-century, CGI-rendered waves. Of course, Santa Monica is not the Sinai, so it will have to forfeit “period.” But the Mosaic backdrop will remain, especially if your putative director/writer – a virginal beauty – is a Talmud-soaked rabbi’s daughter, an exile from Orthodox Judaism who can massage some of Deuteronomy’s finest prose into her screenplay.
Throw in a few obligatory subplots, romantic and otherwise and, just for fun, give yourself, Herman Wouk and your wife, Betty (his real-life literary agent and eternal voice of dispassionate reason, now deceased), pivotal roles – armed with veto rights over the movie script.
To save time (an understandable objective at 97), not to mention wear and tear on arthritic fingers, write the entire novel in epistolary form: a compendium of short letters, e-mails, memoranda, transcripts of meetings, phone calls, text messages, faxes, even recordings of Skyped conversations, complete with marginalia, set in a graphic designer’s field day of typefaces. The Lawgiver is the novel as memo: You can breeze through it all in a tidy 90 minutes.
The slapdash scaffolding contains some awkward joints, however. When X writes to Y about events we, the reader, already know about, but Y does not, we get Memo Interruptus, in which Wouk is forced to parenthetically recapitulate backstory that would otherwise constitute needless repetition.
Worse, because Wouk needs (or wants) to show that he still has literary chops – and he does – the memos and letters are too clever and well-written by half, like characters in any Aaron Sorkin TV series. After a while, patience and credibility become strained.
But what’s that buzzing in my ear? A still small voice, whispering what might be the 11th commandment: “Respect thy elders.” Heck, at 97, Wouk should be saluted for getting out of bed. The Lawgiver won’t win the Pulitzer. It won’t even be nominated. But for all its flaws, it’s actually not a bad read. And it will doubtless make an entertaining film. Epic, you might say.
Michael Posner, a Globe and Mail feature writer, thinks God, among others, would enjoy this book.