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Books: Thinblood Wouk

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YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE (783 pp.)—Herman Wouk—Doubleday ($7.95).

The morality of the biographical novel as practiced by Somerset Maugham (Gauguin is called Strickland) and Irving Stone (Van Gogh is called Van Gogh) is shaky but probably defensible; the gross offense of distorting a man’s life can be justified to some extent if it helps the novelist to capture the quality of the man’s spirit. But there is no literary or historical justification for the cynical trespass Herman Wouk has committed in Youngblood Hawke. It is not merely a distortion; it is an act of violence.

The victim is Thomas Wolfe. Wouk, respected as the storyteller of The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar, widely praised as the sober man of good will who wrote This Is My God, has dismembered Wolfe and used the pieces to put together his novel’s author-hero. This is not the same thing as drawing a fictional portrait of Wolfe. Wouk is not interested in Wolfe’s life, except as a scenario for a searching inquiry into the agonizing problems of authorship (taxes, how to get the highest bid for movie rights, etc.). Wolfe’s autobiographical novels proved him to be socko literary material; why invent a mediocre character when you can crib a good one?

Wouk has borrowed almost everything from Wolfe but his cuff links, although of course there is the customary title-page disclaimer. Wolfe himself is mentioned several times, and Youngblood Hawke, the fictional author, comes to fame 15 years after Wolfe’s death. But the list of similarities testifies to the attentiveness of Wouk’s note taking: both Wolfe and Hawke had huge physiques; Southern backgrounds; cantankerous mothers obsessed with real estate; awkward, adoring older sisters; affairs with sophisticated New York matrons 15 years older than themselves; compulsions to set down every acre of the U.S. on paper; prose styles that needed strong-arm editing; early fame and early deaths from brain disease.

Wouk has altered the Wolfe legend with a startlingly original switch: Maxwell Perkins, the wise old Scribner editor who deftly chopped millions of words from Wolfe’s brilliant but lardy first drafts, becomes Jeanie Green, a wise young editor. By day, she pencils the superfluous from Hawke’s chapters; by night, she is his lady love. Not all night, of course; Wouk heroines are good girls.

Will Jeanie keep her virtue? Will Youngblood be able to pay the Internal Revenue Service the hundreds of thousands of dollars he owes in back taxes? Time after time, when he seems on the point of balancing Hawke’s fiscal or romantic accounts, a new tax lien or an old mistress shows up. Jeanie skips teasingly ahead of Youngblood for most of the book’s 783 pages, and it may be taken as proof that the Romantic Age is finally over that in the end it is not the girl but the Treasury Department that gets the hero.

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