By Herman Wouk
Youngblood Hawke is like a work of the eponymous protagonist: a giant novel that chronicles the life of a small town hick who believes he possesses a talent to tell stories in huge, grand, epic literature.
Here’s a wonderful novel for everybody, including aspiring writers who dream of fame and fortune; people who want an insider’s peek into the publishing and entertainment industries; readers who enjoy fully realized characters of many dimensions, pleasing and prickly, living and breathing within a plot that mirrors the immediate post-WWII era; men who dream of larger than life women; women who dream of smart, successful but also caring men, who sometimes behave like cads; everyone who fantasizes of life roughly in the era of television’s “Mad Men.”
Briefly, Hawke writes his way through the Pacific theater in World War II, producing, among other works, a sprawling novel of small town life in the mountainous coal country of Kentucky (think Wolfe’s unedited O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life or Perkin’s edited Look Homeward, Angel). We meet him in New York in the offices of the publisher that has purchased “Alms for Oblivion.” Hawke negotiates a deal the publisher assures him is unprecedented for a first-time novelist. Fortunately, he later meets among my favorite female characters, the alluring, smart, and blunt Jeanne Green, the best editor any author could ever hope for. You have to believe Wouk modeled her to some degree at least after Max Perkins of Scribner’s. Of course, Hawke falls for her immediately, even though she compares his style to that of O. Henry. And she, yes, she reciprocates the attraction and love. Unfortunately for the both of them, Frieda Winter appears, older, wiser, beautiful, charming, married, and wantonly hedonistic. Soon, Hawke suffers the pains of an enduring affair, of love unrealized. He also introduces us to a cast of unforgettable characters who play important roles in his life: the quintessential agent Ferdie Lax, the unscrupulous developer and capitalist Scotty Hoag, the enterprising star of screen and Broadway Georges Feydal, the sweet and sour bulldog mom Sarah Hawke, the noble publisher Ross Hodge, the grimy schlock paperback publisher Givney, the disillusioned Marxist Karl Fry, and dozens more.
Hawke writes as if possessed, and he is: possessed by the desire to build a fortune that will enable him to focus on his real mission, to write the great, all-encompassing American Comedy; that being a recording of life in these United States of America (like Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel / 1919 / The Big Money or Ross Lockridge, Jr.’s mythical and mystical Raintree County. Hawke produces prodigiously, two thousand, five thousand, ten thousand words a day, sober or drunk, sick or well, anguished by love or inspired by it.
Sadly, he succumbs to two weaknesses. First, as a youth, he drove a coal truck. He crashed and suffered a serve head injury that left him with epilepsy. Second, he mistakenly believes himself to be something of a businessman. He invests unwisely in commercial real estate ventures. He vainly starts his own publishing company to capture more of the revenue generated by his books. He badly mismanages his income taxes (in a time when the top marginal rate hovered at 91% and the penalties could be stiff indeed).
In the end, Hawke lands within a hare’s breath of achieving everything: marriage to Jeanne, the surcease of debt problems, and the freedom to write his grand multi-volume masterpiece. Except the weight of fame, fortune gained and frittered away, and bad decisions catch up with him in a poignant and beautiful ending.
Now, as you read Youngblood Hawke, you’ll find yourself wondering who these characters might have been in real life. Some believe that Wouk modeled Hawke after Thomas Wolfe. Hard to say definitively; however, if you have only passing knowledge of Wolfe’s life, you’ll recognize a few similarities between fictive and real life.
Hawke comes from the mountain town of Hovey, KY, Wolfe from Asheville, NC. Sarah Hawke, his mother, invests in land for mining rights, Wolfe’s mom, Julia, ran boarding houses. “Alms for Oblivion,” though never excerpted, sounds much like Look Homeward, Angel: life in Hovey vs. life in Altamont. Hawke’s lover Frieda Winter and Wolfe’s Aline Bernstein share stockbroker husbands and work as scenic designers. Jeanne Green edits with the same eye toward commercial success as Max Perkins did. Both Hawke and Wolfe suffer fatal brain disease, Hawke from epilepsy, Wolfe from a migrating, pernicious form of tuberculosis. And both die young.
As they say, they don’t write them like Youngblood Hawke anymore: a novel as big, as bold, as energizing and as heartbreaking as life itself. But maybe some young, aspiring writer will, again. w/c