“The Caine Mutiny” is a novel primarily about life on the WWII era destroyer-minesweeper USS Caine. It culminates in the trial of the ship’s executive officer Steve Maryk for relieving the ship’s captain Philip Francis Queeg during an extremely dangerous typhoon. This is the “mutiny” of the title.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
The story’s protagonist is Willis “Willie” Keith, a light-hearted young man from a wealthy family with roots going back to the Mayflower. Willie plays piano at cheap nightclubs in Manhattan where he has met his current sweetheart; a beautiful red-headed lounge singer working under the stage name Mae Wynn but is actually an Italian American girl from the Bronx named Marie Minotti.
Much of the story is seen through the eyes of Willie as he tries to square his comfortable and lazy existence as a wealthy kid with the reality of wartime America in the 1940s. His overbearing mother strongly disapproves of Mae and Willie starts out agreeing that Mae is not a fit wife for him because of her lower social position and earthier manners. And paralleling this personal conflict, Willie also struggles to adapt himself to what he considers the arbitrary, and in some cases, stupid people and rules that the Navy inflicts on him. Over and over, he finds himself bridling against and being victimized by petty authority figures that can make his life a hell.
In midshipman school he earns the highest demerits possible without actual expulsion because of the distractions over his tempestuous relationship with Mae. Aboard the Caine, time and again, he is the victim of miserable conditions and bad luck that sour his opinion of the Navy as a whole and the Caine specifically. His first captain, Lieutenant Commander William De Vriess is an informal and sarcastic officer whom Willie views as a slovenly and slack leader who allows the Caine to exist as a scow-like disgrace with sailors who appear to be without discipline or order. When De Vriess is replaced by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, an officer who identifies himself as a “book man” who runs the ship by the strictest adherence to Navy regulations, Willie is ecstatic, assuming that now the Caine will be a proper home for him.
He pretty quickly learns that life under Queeg’s command will be infinitely worse than under De Vriess. Queeg micromanages every aspect of the officers’ and crew’s behavior. But much worse he learns that Queeg is both incompetent at conning the ship and cowardly in the face of the enemy. And worse still, he expects the officers to back all his excuses around these shortcomings and often themselves take the blame for the disasters these behaviors cause.
Eventually Queeg completely loses the respect of the officers and crew who call him behind his back “Old Yellowstain.” This refers to the time Queeg was supposed to have the Caine escort, at close range, a group of landing craft to a departure spot within a thousand yards of the beach of Kwajalein during an invasion. But instead of shepherding them in he raced ahead at flank speed and well before the departure distance he dropped a yellow dye marker and veered off to safety.
One of Willie’s fellow officers, Lieutenant Tom Keefer is a budding author, who spends his nights writing the great American war story. He also detests Queeg and uses his knowledge of psychology to convince the ship’s second in command, Lieutenant Steve Maryk that Queeg is a dangerous paranoiac whose behavior merits action under Articles 184-186 of the Naval Code which specifies the extremely unlikely circumstances under which a captain can be involuntarily relieved of duty by one of his subordinates on account of mental illness.
And finally, during a typhoon Queeg’s behavior reaches a low point where he is frozen in fear as the ship is helplessly tossed around because of his stubborn refusal to veer off of the heading ordered by the fleet command or stabilize the ship by filling the empty tanks with sea water as ballast. Maryk with the help of Willie as Officer of the Deck relieve Queeg and save the Caine from foundering. And this sets up the climax of the book, the military trial of Lieutenant Maryk.
Maryk is defended by Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a navy fighter pilot who is laid up recovering from burns to his hands after cracking up his plane. He is a highly skilled lawyer and initially refuses to accept the defense until he figures out that Maryk had been set up by the real author of the “Caine Mutiny” Tom Keefer.
Greenwald stakes the whole case on proving to the court that despite the expert testimony of two naval psychiatric experts Queeg truly is mentally ill and was completely disabled during the typhoon. To do this he demonstrates during the trial Queeg’s cowardice under fire and his dishonesty and incompetence during various crises aboard the ship. And as the final demonstration of his case, he tricks Queeg into an interminable, rambling and increasingly incoherent rebuttal of the litany of petty actions that Queeg had inflicted on the crew, all the while compulsively rolling a pair of ball bearing in his hand as the naval officers of the court look on aghast. And Maryk is acquitted after a single hour of recess.
After the acquittal, Keefer uses a part of the thousand dollar advance from the sale of his unfinished novel to host a victory celebration for Maryk at which Greenwald shows up late and very drunk and when asked to give a speech reveals his anger at having had to torpedo Queeg. He declares that despite his clever defense Queeg was not insane. He was a terrible officer and a nightmare for his subordinates but well within the acceptable range for naval officers. Greenwald blames Keefer and calls him the “true author of the Caine mutiny” because he used Maryk to punish Queeg to satisfy his hatred of the military. He reveals to the rest of the crew that Keefer’s testimony during the trial hung Maryk out to dry. And Greenwald finishes his speech by throwing his glass of champagne in Keefer’s face and telling him to step outside if he wants to defend his honor.
The rest of the book finishes off Willie’s career in the navy. Keefer is the next captain of the Caine and shows himself to be very similar to Queeg in his lack of courage and poor command instincts. But Willie actually matures and in a critical situation, the crashing of a kamikaze plane into the Caine, he saves the ship. Finally, as the war ends, Keefer’s navy deployment is up and Willie serves as the last captain of the Caine. He even manages to convince his superiors to allow him to steam the Caine back to the United States and moor it in the New York City area where it will be decommissioned.
Willie tries to take up his romance with Mae but she has found a new beau in the person of a band leader who is in the middle of his second divorce. The book ends with Willie telling Mae that when she is ready to move on in her life, he wants to marry her and begin a normal life without the music business. The tenor of the story seems to point to Willie and Mae finally coming together now that he has come through the war years and truly matured.
I’ll start out by saying that I consider this an excellent book. For me the weakest part of the story is Willie’s relationship with Mae. Personally, I found both of them annoying and their affair not particularly compelling. The strongest part of the book is the trial. It’s remarkable. I found it riveting. The way that Wouk writes Greenwald’s performance in the courtroom proves to me that the fighter pilot/lawyer is his true hero in the story. He has the moral clarity to size up the mutiny situation and triage the victims and identify the villain. He has sympathy for Maryk and even Queeg and contempt for Keefer. He does what has to be done but with a bad conscience. The other characters are drawn in various levels of detail and provide a rich landscape of the World War II navy experience. Wouk served on two destroyer-minesweepers and it is assumed that there is much autobiographical detail to his tale. I highly recommend the book. And the movie that was made from this book is also a gem.