If memory serves, I bought my first copy of The Caine Mutiny at a used book store in Lincoln, England, in 1999 or 2000. It was a pretty beat-up, water-damaged Penguin paperback edition and I read it as though I was possessed by it, all in one week. (400 pages in a week is pretty good for me.) Full disclosure: I didn’t read every word. The first time I read it I was put off by the love story, so I skipped over all that and only read the parts that had to do with MEN AT WAR, because that’s the kind of guy I was then. I’ve since read the novel from cover to cover many times and so far I appreciate it more every time (if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t keep picking it up to re-read it).
Just in case you’re confused: The novel does, in fact, pivot around a mutiny aboard a naval vessel during the war in the Pacific, but the story is about the main character of the novel, who is not Humphrey Bogart, in spite of the movie you might have seen. (I kind of wish I’d never seen that movie. I still hear Bogart’s voice when I read the novel, and although Bogart did a fine job of playing Queeg, it’s the wrong voice for Queeg. John Fiedler’s voice would have been perfect; he may have been a better casting choice, too. But I digress.)
The book opens and closes on Willie Keith, who enters the story as a spoiled mama’s boy with little sense of direction but ends up as a confident, strong-willed young man who’s going places. The story is not told from Keith’s point of view, but he is present in almost every scene; events turn around him and their importance is impressed on him, building his character piece by piece. That I ever thought his story was boring enough to skip over should show you what I lack in the way of appreciation for good writing.
The Caine Mutiny is also amazing for being semi-autobiographical. Author Herman Wouk served as an officer aboard two destroyer minesweepers (one of them named the Zane) during the Pacific war. One of Wouk’s duties was as the ship’s communications officer, same as Keith and Thomas Keefer. Keefer was also an aspiring author who spent much of his off-time (and a bit more besides) writing a novel. It’s impossible to read the novel without imaging that many, if not most of the episodes in it are anecdotes from Wouk’s experience aboard ship during the war.
I still have that first Penguin paperback; it’s parked in a place of honor on the top shelf of my bedside bookcase and I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least three times, but still take it out now and again to read my favorite passages at bedtime when I’m not sure what to read. (The speech by Barney Greenwald at the end is one of the best.) I’ve since bought at least two hardbacked copies. I found the first one at a resale shop in Madison and read it several times before giving it away to a coworker who seemed interested in it, but I’m pretty sure he never read it. I went looking for the second copy at Powell’s bookstore while on vacation in Portland OR and found a first edition in its original dust jacket (squee!). This is the second or third time I’ve read it. I’ve read a couple other Herman Wouk novels (Winds Of War and War And Remembrance spring to mind), but haven’t enjoyed any of them more than The Caine Mutiny.