Herman Wouk does Texas -- his craft and wit undimmed

On Books

April 11, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

Come this May 27, Herman Wouk will be 89 years old. His career burst into fame with publication of The Caine Mutiny in 1951, which brought him a Pulitzer. It was followed by Marjorie Morningstar four years later, and since then he has not slowed down. A Hole in Texas (Little, Brown, 278 pages, $25) brings to 12 his output of novels, among them two volumes of acclaimed World War II work that later became what ABC maintains is "the most watched television show in history." He has also written substantial nonfiction, including, in 1959, This Is My God, an account of the Jewish faith and its role in his life.

This new novel is, more or less, about the Superconducting Super Collider -- a very real program that Wouk calls "the largest basic science project in world history." It was funded with several billions of dollars of government money and then, in 1993, at a cost of a billion more, closed down. It left, as a note in the beginning of the book says, "some two thousand particle physicists high, dry and unemployed on a forlorn plain outside Dallas. The sole residue of their miscarried quest for the Higgs boson was a hole in Texas, an enormous abandoned Hole."

The main character could be said to be the Higgs boson, which is speculated, or theorized, to be the ultimate subatomic particle, a transmitter of force that enables other particles to have mass. Its hypothetical existence is very elusive in concept and practicality. It could be isolated or discovered and defined only by bigger particle accelerators than exist on earth. That was to be the Superconducting Super Collider.

The book's central human character is Guy Carpenter, a physicist who had lost his job when the SSC went down and at the time of the novel is working at NASA, looking for life on planets of distant stars, under budgetary anxiety.

Dialog is crisp, swift and engaging, if occasionally excessively weighted by narrative content. Throughout, there is sparkling wit. Wouk has a good sense of ongoing energy, a fine command of deft devices of suspense, which send both the science and politics stories rollicking on, and brings to life Guy and his wife, Penny, a microbiologist, and a half-dozen other characters.

One of them is Rep. Myra Kadane, a former movie star who gained her husband's seat when he died. She is on the House Science Committee. She and Carpenter meet for lunch in Washington on his boss's insistence. Wouk establishes neat little lines of conflict. There is tension between Kadane and her chief of staff; Kadane and Carpenter are very conscious of being attracted to each other -- though he is happily married; a probing Washington Post reporter who has been dogging Carpenter turns out to be Kadane's chief of staff's close pal. There is a rumor, quoted by the Post reporter, that Wen Mei Li, one of China's top physicists, U.S. educated -- with whom Carpenter had had an intense affair years before -- might be visiting the United States very soon. There is more. All this is in motion in the first 35 pages.

The story is told in a straight third-person narrative, offering uncensored awareness of Carpenter's thoughts and substantial omniscient insight into others' -- selectively, serving the suspense. Wouk is a storyteller who has been there, flipping in bits of coincidence, a befuddled cab driver, a persnickety house cat, other entertaining and engaging touches. All this keeps the movement crackling, provides bits of sub-motive here and there, woven together very neatly.

I am not a physicist, though I have always had a mild interest in science. But Wouk's science writing -- a sort of history of the exploration of the atom over the last 60 or 70 years -- is very readable and seems to me to be sound.

Nominally, the book is a literary political thriller -- a good one, a sprightly one that moves with lean, brisk, convincing energy. Its greatest seriousness is as a satire of the manipulation of power in politics and especially in Washington. It's a book without the ambition of some of Wouk's earlier work -- the raising of fundamental complex questions. But it is splendid entertainment, and far from frothy. Wouk shows fine craftsmanship in distilling complex elements of physics, economics, politics and other associated pursuits.

Legislative menuvering involves money beyond mortal imagining and technology beyond the grasp of all but a handful of super specialists. Years ago, I covered the Congress and followed the money through the legislative process again and again. I have never read a more concise and accurate description than Wouk's.

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