Wouk's latest creates its own category

Inside, Outside, by Herman Wouk. Boston: Little, Brown. 644 pp. $19.95. In his latest fiction, novelist Herman Wouk continues to write about history, the Jewish heritage, and the outsider in both. ``Inside, Outside'' is long, but compared with Mr. Wouk's previous extensive history and fictional books on World War II, it is a more concise, accomplished work. Perhaps this is the novel that Mr. Wouk has wanted to write all along; it is one which many of his readers will enjoy more than his other books.

Wouk's main character in ``Inside, Outside'' is David Goodkind, an Orthodox Jew working for the Nixon administration. Goodkind is also writing his autobiography -- about his life as a student at Columbia University, dramatic director at a summer camp, joke writer, and the son of immigrant parents.

He lives in two worlds: one a secure fortress of family and faith and the other a precarious and confusing existence among gentiles and less-devout Jews. Goodkind's movement between these two worlds is perhaps what draws the attention of Richard Nixon to the aide who deals with matters concerning Israel and the Jews.

As in ``Caine Mutiny,'' Wouk demonstrates his ability to write with compassion about people both literary and historical, real and imaginary. This president, who is now regarded by many as a disaster or a tragedy, becomes in Wouk's hands a man who is genuinely moved by Goodkind's devotion to both his religion and to the state of Israel; Goodkind may represent to Nixon a world and person in whom he sees himself reflected.

Wouk has always written well about such men, and his Nixon is a character to reconsider in somewhat the same way a black writer might look at President Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights legislation. Wouk achieves a mastery of his topics by writing short chapters and by introducing his characters in the manner of a 19th-century novelist.

His narrator is gracious and literate, and expresses his themes and ideas through sharply drawn characters. He creates a New York that is both memorable and familiar, and his expert use of Yiddish and Hebrew words is reminiscent of James Baldwin's employment of Biblical language in ``Go Tell It on the Mountain.''

Wouk is sometimes compared with best-selling authors like James Michener, Leon Uris, and Irving Wallace because of the scope of his books and their immense popularity. But his similarity to those writers is superficial; neither he nor his characters has ever been fashionable, and neither ``Marjorie Morningstar'' nor ``Caine Mutiny'' fit comfortably into the neat categories of war fiction or novels on adolescence. Both of those novels were sound and moral and were regarded as reserved.

Wouk is rather, like John P. Marquand or Louis Auchincloss, an acute observer of a particular aspect of American society. The choices made by his characters are the same as those of Baldwin or any other writer dealing with a crisis of identity.

David Goodkind writes that his autobiography is a ``kaddish for my father, of course, start to finish; . . . A sentimental Big Band number that no one has ever heard till now. . . .'' Both Mr. Goodkind and Mr. Wouk succeed magnificently.

Sam Cornish teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

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