A Sleeper Has A-Wouk

I read Herman Wouk’s new novel about Moses in a single sitting, a tribute both to his skill as a storyteller and the absence of any need to give much thought to the substance of the tale. I guess that, deep in his nineties, Wouk is entitled to the privilege of self-indulgence, but certainly The Lawgiver tells us much more about Wouk than it does about Moses, its purported protagonist.

Ingeniously constructed as an assemblage of letters, emails, Skype transcripts, and diary entries as Wouk, who makes himself a leading character in his novel, juxtaposes his role as a consultant on the script for a new movie about Moses with his own current project, a novel about Moses, narrated from Aaron’s perspective, which has been on his personal agenda for decades – and remains there, even as we assume the movie is going to be a huge success.

How could it be otherwise? Margo Solovei, the hot-shot young woman who has been given the assignment to do a script that will make the world forget Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille is the daughter of the Bobover rebbe of Passaic, New Jersey, albeit a fugitive from the frumkeit (Orthodox religiosity) she was raised in. Interwoven with the progress of the film’s script and casting is the protracted and problematic romance between Margo (yes, you are intended to think of Marjorie Morningstar) and her Modern Orthodox lawyer boyfriend, and a lawsuit about algae (!) between the Weizmann Institute and an Australian geneticist, as well as the correspondence between Margo and two other Beis Yaacov alumnae, whose romantic adventures add some padding and totally extraneous humor to the slender saga.

It’s interesting that Wouk comes “back to life” as a novelist in the same time frame as the announcement by Philip Roth that he has written his last novel. When Marjorie Morningstar came out in 1955, it appeared that Wouk would be the chronicler and critic of middle-class American Jewish materialism – but then in 1959, along came Goodbye Columbus, and Roth became the pre-eminent novelistic scold, consigning Wouk to a different claim to fame, novelist as pop historian.

Will The Lawgiver cause a reappraisal or stimulate a revival of interest in Wouk’s earlier work? Maybe a blip, but not a groundswell. However, I’ll wait with hope and anticipation for the Wouk novelization of Aaron’s diary, even as I predict that we may see a new Roth novel first.