Inside Outside

by Herman Wouk, 1985

Another EXCELLENT book by Herman Wouk. This one is long, 644 pages, but engrossing. It is set mainly in New York City in the first half of the 1900’s. It’s about a boy, a Jewish boy, who is born in 1915 in Bronx, New York, to Russian Jewish immigrants. It tells the story of his life and I think it is partly autobiographical. I loved it because it made me feel like I was watching an old movie set in NYC. I loved the styles, the talk, the customs. I learned a lot about Jewishness and their customs. He was raised a practicing Jew, observing the Sabbath, studying the Talmud, observing all the other Jewish festivals. He falls away in his early adulthood when he falls head over heels in love with a “Grade A Showgirl,” named Bobbie Webb. But, he realizes through this tortured, passionate love affair, that he cannot leave his religion behind. He loves it. He loves his Dad, mostly, a very hard-working man who gives and loves and gives some more, and would do anything for his son, Israel David Goodkind. I just love Herman Wouk! He is such a fantastic writer! I need to read Youngblood Hawke someday because I think that one is the one that is most autobiographical.

Here are a few paragraphs I liked. The first one is about a conversation between Golda Meir and the main character, I. David Goodkind, who is working for Nixon as a cultural liaison to Israel. It takes place in 1973:

“She thinks the President’s the best we’ve had since Truman; and not just because he’s been decent to Israel. They were edgy over here when he took office, since the American Jews were so dead set against him. But in foreign affairs, says Golda, he’s proved himself a remarkable man. She thinks that he got us out of the Vietnam mess – left by three other Presidents, she points out – the best way any man could have done; that he’s been handling the Germans and the Soviet Union very craftily; and that the turn to China was a masterstroke.”

Here he is trying to describe beautiful show girls:

“Oh, what’s the use? I tried before to describe them, and gave up, and now they were ever so much more beautiful in the radiance of the stage. What can poor print convey of the brilliance of those young eyes, the curves of those young bodies, the grace of those young movements, the enticement of those young stage smiles? God Almighty, a beautiful girl is and will always be the most enthralling sight a man’s eye can look upon, and ten of them were up there on the Winter Garden Stage.”

He has met Bobbie Webb and is trying to describe her:

“Am I supposed to try for a description now? She is here before me, more real than all the fleshly scurriers in the White House corridors; a haunting presence, as poignant and intense as I can bear. But okay. Black hair to her shoulders, large eyes set far apart under a broad brow, very white, very smooth skin, a snub nose and thin finely cut lips; Bobbie Webb was in fact an archetypical Irish beauty, a colleen out of the magazines. And I remember her hands, slender and white and long-fingered. But when I try to project myself back to call up my very first impression, I return to those eyes: gray-blue, huge, sparkling, very alive, with a look in them of sweetness, of an eager appetite for fun, and of femininity as powerful as all the electricity out of Boulder Dam. And this was when Bobbie Webb was not trying, when she just looked at you and talked. Shen she used those eyes–well, we will get to that.”

Here, he is talking with his old friend about whether or not he believes in God:

“You don’t believe? Not in anything?”

‘With a chilly stare, Mark pourd himself the last of the scotch, half a glassful, and took a long gulp. “Believe? I know things. Not much, not enough, but what I know, I know.”

“What can you know about God?” I was drunk enough for such talk. “You either believe or you don’t.”

“You’re quite mistaken,” said Mark, somewhat slurring his words. “You can know almost anything about God, providing you put the right questions to Him. You have to learn how to put the questions, and they have to be accurate and airtight.”

‘Mark finished his scotch, hicccupped, and went on, “Now my father, for instance, doesn’t know that two atoms of hydrogen bind with one of oxygen to form a water molecule. Yet it’s God’s truth, and an important one. You don’t know it, either, Davey. You believe it, because you read it somewhere, or a teacher told you. I know it. I’ve put the question, and He answered, straight out. God will answer a high school boy. He asks only that you use common sense, pay very close attention to Him, not be sloppy, and count and measure correctly. God ignores sloppy questions. Sloppiness is the opposite of Godliness. God is exact. He is marvellously, purely exact. Theology is all slop. Moses gave the best answers you could get, three thousand years ago, and he was no theologian.”

The last chapter is called, He Will Make Peace, and it’s after Israel has won the latest war against Syria and Egypt against all odds, his daughter and mother are staying in Israel, and everything is good. “He will make peace, For us, and for all Israel, Amen.” It is astounding that the Jews, with all their studying, all their orthodoxy, all their “religion,” cannot see that Jesus is their peace. They live, going through their meaningless rituals, still waiting, when it has already happened. God has made peace with all mankind. He has come, Himself, and rescued us from sin and death, from endless futility. They are blind to it. Herman Wouk loved his Jewishness. He clung to it. I wanted to read this to get a feel for what that looks like. It looks like a constant striving to be the best, to have the best, to look the best. It’s caring so much about appearances, but not about the heart. The outside of the cup is clean and shiny but the inside is full of rot. Alas, it will all make sense in the end. Still, I loved this book, and I love Herman Wouk’s writing. Another book of his I need to read is This is My God.