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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Lawgiver’

THE LAWGIVER
By Herman Wouk
Simon & Schuster, $25.99, 234 pages

When Herman Wouk was 94 years old in 2009, he decided to "have a go at another novel, if only to pass the time" while his meditation on faith and science, "The Language God Talks," was in the publication process. For years, he had wanted to write a novel about Moses, but as he started to write, "there lay the prose. Limp, lifeless." Suddenly, as his characters "came rolling into [my] office," he had an inspiration.

Thus, Mr. Wouk, author of numerous best-selling novels such as "The Caine Mutiny," "Marjorie Morningstar," "Youngblood Hawke" and "The Winds of War" came to write a story about writing a novel and making a movie about the life of Moses, the great lawgiver. That someone aged 97 has the energy, enthusiasm and wit to complete such a project is a marvel. The result is a lighthearted and delightful tour de force.

The premise of "The Lawgiver" is that as the author sits at his desk trying to find a way to write his story, he is asked to participate in a movie about Moses. He cleverly inserts his own inability to write his novel into the story and becomes a character, as does his beloved wife, Betty Sarah (BSW).

The novel is written entirely in letters, notes, emails, text messages, transcriptions of conversations and other contemporary communications between the characters. It's a tale about love and marriage, about faith, history and tradition and, of course, about the convoluted ways Hollywood goes about making a movie from initial idea to finished script and hired actors.

Timothy Warshaw, "the red-hot movie maker of the hour" tells the fictional Herman Wouk that Hezzie Jacobs, "a Texas venture capitalist who sometimes dabbles in films, though his main interest is oil from algae," was approached by Louis Gluck, an Australian "eccentric investor, a uranium tycoon" with money in "a vast project of algae ponds going in Nullarbor, Australia." Gluck wants to make a film about Moses. When Hezzie tells Gluck that "a Moses film might cost two hundred million, all he said was, 'Fair dinkum,' Australian slang for okay, or the equivalent." The catch is that Gluck wants Wouk's stamp of approval on the project, on "the script, the cast, everything." With BSW as his counselor and agent, Wouk hesitates.

Gluck ("rolling through the door in a wheelchair, with one leg propped up on a board and a dark-skinned fellow pushing him") comes to see Wouk to persuade him to write a movie instead of a book. Wouk declines saying he "can't write a movie. I don't know how." He does, however, agree to act as consultant if Warshaw can find a writer-director up to the task of making "a Moses movie measuring up to the subject."

Wouk is introduced to the young director, Margo Solovei, daughter of a rabbi who has rejected her father's strict Jewish upbringing and gone out into the world. Wouk is pleased to find Margo to be a "Hollywood writer-director who can read the Torah at sight." He reluctantly takes a liking to her and her lively, biblically inspired ideas. Margo desperately wants the job, and to that end, reconnects with an old boyfriend, Joshua Lewin, a successful New York lawyer who has connections in the movie world and still carries the torch for Margo. She gets the job and frantically writes the script, checking with Wouk as she goes along. There are some wonderful conversations between the two on Moses, his early life with Pharaoh, the burning bush, the voyage into the Promised Land, the Ten Commandments, and so on, as Margo develops her script.

Wouk concludes that "Margo has done her job. . . . Her knowledge of the Torah, drilled into her by her Hasidic father, gives this frail Hollywood artifact a tang of truth, and her residual love of him some warmth. He is Margo's Moses, and the thing might just work as the ground of a retro DeMille blockbuster. Given the money, that's what Hollywood does: turn meager words into glorious pictures that move, mostly ephemera, but all depends on the story."

The search for the right actor to play Moses presents difficulties, as everyone harks back to the old DeMille production. Finally, Perry Pines, a young Australian actor, who had a bit part as Achilles in a London production, is invited to Hollywood for a screen test. Pines in the meantime has "rediscovered the farm life of [his] youth, and the sheep [he'd] always loved, and [his] native sweet, fresh air after two years in the smelly, gloomy London murk." He reluctantly flies from Australia to Hollywood, and then returns to the sheep farm when the screen test never takes place.

The project runs into many difficulties primarily regarding money and lawsuits involving the algae ponds, Hezzie's finances, and Perry's grasping London agent. There are several amusing subplots involving the relationship Margo establishes with a friend of Joshua, who is engaged to a pilot shot down in Afghanistan, a snide busybody classmate of Margo who tries to make trouble for Margo, Margo's brother's romance and various other subplots. Most center around love lost and found.

As in a Shakespearean resolution, all's well that ends well. In his epilogue, Wouk connects the loose ends: The screenplay is a success, Perry is cast successfully as Moses, the lawsuits are resolved peacefully without trials, Perry's unscrupulous agent gets his just desserts and all the lovers are united.

The real Herman Wouk returns to reality and ends his "Lawgiver" with a graceful tribute to "BSW, the girl [he] met by God's grace in 1944," who died of a massive stroke while he was writing "this story." He ends his latest novel thus: "A few years ago I said to her I had three more books to write. 'Is one of them fiction?' she inquired. 'Yes.' 'Then write that one.' 'Why?' 'Because we're living it up.' Her brand of Zen. Hence, 'The Lawgiver.' "

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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