I wrote my first novel standing in Herman Wouk’s shadow. Literally: I was in college at the George Washington University in D.C., an underweight kid living on friends’ couches who’d suddenly decided to be an observant Jew. There was only one Orthodox synagogue in walking distance, and it was like a rogues’ gallery of important Americans who happened to be religious Jews: Joe Lieberman, a senator who’d soon be nominated as a vice-presidential candidate; Leon Wieseltier, who was then writing a book called Kaddish.
And then there was Herman Wouk.
He was a writer, but an unpinnable one: he’d written doorstoppy masterpieces like War and Remembrance, a 1,056-page chronicle of World War II, but also short, sweet books like The City Boy, a story about one summer in an 11-year-old boy’s life, and Welcome to the Carnival, which Jimmy Buffett turned into a musical. And then there was This Is My God, the closest thing to an easy, accessible construction manual for Judaism as anyone’s ever put together. And he’d gotten his start writing gags for early Hollywood comics.
Wouk wasn’t an Orthodox Jewish writer; he was a writer who created beach novels and serious histories, who, on the side, just happened to be an Orthodox Jew. When I knew him, Wouk was in his late 80s; now, at 94, he’s still pumping out work.
His latest book,
The Language God Talks
, is nonfiction — a history of science, from the proto-nuclear 1940s through the golden Space Age of the 1980s, told from the viewpoint of someone who’s decisively not a scientist. In fact, it’s as much a meditation on scientists as scientific theory, a fan-letter to scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg who easily and fluently explained scientific concepts to mass audiences. As Wouk freely acknowledges, it’s a fluency that does not work in both directions, as he’s spent most of his life trying, and failing, to wrap his head around the finer points of scientific theories.