In the second half of his memoirs, “You’ve Had Your Time,” Anthony Burgess calls Herman Wouk’s 1962 novel “Youngblood Hawke” “the best book about writers and money since “New Grub Street.” This made me realize that although I was moved to tears by “Marjorie Morningstar” in high school and loved “The Caine Mutiny” on stage and film, I had never been tempted to pick up “Hawke.” Maybe it was the title, which made it sound like some sub-C. S. Forester pirate epic. Or perhaps it was the rumble I’d heard that it stole heavily from the life of Thomas Wolfe, one of my youthful favorites.
Then came a generally ill-received film version, which confirmed all my prejudices and kept me in blissful ignorance. Until Burgess sent me stumbling to the Santa Monica Library, where two often-rebound copies of the 783-page 1962 hardback--one red, one green--sat in silent reproach. Was this some kind of cosmic joke on Burgess’ part, like giving your friends a huge book and telling them they were mentioned somewhere in it? I took the green, and hoped for the best.
I started reading “Youngblood Hawke” at midnight, and by 4 a.m. --when gravity closed my eyes--I was almost halfway through. I finished it in two more large gulps. What Burgess said was true, but not enough. “Hawke” is a tremendous novel, rich and meaty, full of wisdom and pain, as much about Wouk and all suddenly successful writers as it is about Wolfe (whose life it does superficially resemble.)
It’s the veritable Big Balzac--the elu- sive challenge that American writers from Dreiser to today’s Tom Wolfe have risen to with varying degrees of success. As searing and accurate a picture of New York in the late 1940s and 1950s as “Bonfire of the Vanities” was of its period, Hawke has the added bonus of a born novelist’s heart beating beneath the surface. And icing the cake are some marvelous Hollywood sections, including the best agent-in-action-on-two-telephones scene ever captured in print.
“Youngblood Hawke” was Wouk’s fifth novel, started in 1957 (when he was 42) and finished in 1961. There are several autobiographical touches: Both Wouk and his hero spent three years in the U.S. Navy stationed in the South Pacific; both started out trying to write plays; both had early success, succumbed to the lure of Hollywood and hated it; both had very clear plans for the work that lay ahead.
“I view Hawke, like Caine and Marjorie, as an experimental reaching out for broader powers and new tools,” Wouk wrote in his work journal, later quoted by Arnold Beichman in “Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian.” If he could pull this one off, Wouk felt he could then move on to the two giant World War II novels (he called them “Gog” and “Magog” in his notes; generations of readers and television viewers know them as “The Winds of War” and “War and Rememberance”) which he had in mind.
As Beichman points out, Wouk was most worried about his main character being not only a writer (“Writers Are The World’s Dullest People!” he reminded himself in his notes) but also a genius. “His effect upon people is the real way to know he is great because I can’t write his books for him,” reads another journal entry. And indeed, one of the novel’s most immediate pleasures is watching the effect which Arthur Youngblood Hawke, the shambling giant novelist from Kentucky, has on the slick denizens of New York as he crashes through their lives on his Valkyrie ride to fame.
In just the first few pages, an editor wrestles with his own jealousy when Hawke’s messy first novel, “Aims for Oblivion,” gets a big advance; a shrewd publisher explains his uncharacteristic generosity by saying, “The thing is, I think Youngblood Hawke is money"; the two women who will soon receive his love joust at a party; critics, producers and agents signal important themes ahead; and a beautifully drawn character named Karl Fry--mystery writer, failed poet and communist, Hawke’s first New York friend--says, when asked if Hawke is any good, “I’m not sure. I think he may be a genius, a sort of ignorant empty-headed genius, one of these divine harps the wind blows on and they make music without knowing what the hell they’re doing. Like Dickens, like Balzac, like Twain . . . “
Balzac was more than just a literary influence on “Youngblood Hawke": Wouk used the French novelist’s own financial disasters as part of his canvas, including Balzac’s desperate attempts to pay off his debts by writing harder and faster. “Balzac plus Wolfe, mainly, plus the kind of corporate litigation that fills the land--I must do it as well as I can and take what pasting I must for tone,” Wouk noted in his journal.
In fact, there was little outright pasting: Most critics were respectful, but even the best reviews seemed to imply that perhaps the dirty little secrets of a writer’s financial life should have remained unexplored, and now Mr. Wouk could get on to more important things. The book sold as well as his previous novels, became a successful paperback and then a quickly forgotten film. Doubleday has just issued, with no fanfare, a new hardcover edition.
Wouk, the most reticent of writers, doesn’t like to talk much about his work or its reception. From his Palm Springs home, he sends this comment: “I believe it was Mark Twain who once said that by immortality for a book he meant 30 years. On that reckoning, ‘Youngblood Hawke’ would have a year to go.” My guess is that it will be around for a lot longer--as long as people are interested in sex, money, the creation of art, and characters who continue to blaze in a reader’s memory long after the last page is turned.
“Trust Me on This” is an occasional feature in which writers make a case for that forgotten, obscure or unsung book that they put in everyone’s hands with the words: “Read this. You’ll love it.” Doubleday has reissued a number of Herman Wouk’s books, including “Youngblood Hawke,” in hardcover.