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'Sailor And Fiddler' Is A Lovely Coda To A Literary Career

Herman Wouk's new memoir opens with two stanzas from "The Wreck of the Old 97," the famous ballad about a 1903 train crash in Virginia that killed 11 people. Initially, it seems an odd choice — while Wouk's most famous novels have dealt with tragedy, they've been mostly focused on war, not locomotives careering down the tracks at unsafe speeds. But Wouk explains, with his trademark droll humor: "Gentle reader, that railroad folk tune is sure haunting your durable storyteller, aged ninety-seven."

Wouk made it past old 97 after all. He's now 100, and he has finally decided to tell the story of his life — in a way, on his own terms — in Sailor and Fiddler, the book that he says will be his last. The memoir almost didn't happen; when someone first suggested the project way back in the 1980s, his wife talked him out of it. ("Dear," he recounts her saying, "you're not that interesting a person.")

Had Wouk written an autobiography then, it would have almost certainly been a very different book than this one — it's not unkind to suggest that the memory of a 100-year-old man is quite a bit less reliable than the memory of a man 30 years younger. But it takes only a few pages of Sailor and Fiddler for the reader to realize that this might be the only autobiography the famously reclusive and self-effacing Wouk could write. It's light on details, but heavy on thought and charm, and it's a fitting final work for an author with a long and remarkable career.

Early on, Wouk suggests that his memoir might be redundant, considering how much of himself he has poured into his previous books: "Somerset Maugham said that his novels were largely his autobiography, and in my way I have used up my own life, pretty near, in my fiction." And indeed, it's easy to see traces of a younger Wouk in the characters that anchor Don't Stop the Carnival and Inside, Outside.

Wouk tells the story of his early life in just a few pages, making it clear that his short, vague descriptions of his childhood are all we're going to get. Here's his reflection on his high school career: "Among [my classmates] I was a Bronx nobody, a fat short baby-faced classroom clown. Depicted in fiction fifty years later, my teenage ordeals and disasters may be amusing, but I am not revisiting them now, thank you, for love or money." (Surely Wouk, at 100, has earned what we probably all wish for: the right not to think about our high school years ever again.)

He's similarly reticent about his time serving in the Navy in World War II, and the early years of his marriage, during which he and his wife lost their eldest son in a drowning accident at the age of 4. "I have not written, nor will I, about this catastrophe, from which we never wholly recovered," Wouk writes, and of course it's impossible to fault him.

Readers hoping for detailed insight into Wouk's most famous novels, from The Caine Mutiny to The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, are likely to be disappointed — while he does share some anecdotes about his writing process, they're few and far between. But Wouk remains an exceptionally charming author, and the stories he does tell are unsurprisingly engaging. (Particularly his memories of the actor Charles Laughton: "ugly as sin, inordinately fat, world-famous, triumphant, a terrible flop.")

He does occasionally offer some advice, like this, for young people considering going into the writing field: "Literature, I tell aspiring writers, is a mug's game. ... A mug's game, I say, a crapshoot, the stakes one's heart's blood. Young aspirers to Literature who face the stakes open-eyed, yet roll the dice, have my grandfatherly blessing and a ghostly kiss."

Maybe it's a mug's game, but Wouk played it better than most, and he's left us with an incredible body of work. The most surprising thing about Sailor And Fiddler might be its brevity — it clocks in at 160 pages, a contrast to Wouk's famously long novels. And while he chooses with this book to err on the side of saying too little, he does tease a series of diaries he's been keeping since the 1930s, writing that they may be made available in some form after his death.

But Wouk doesn't owe us anything, in life or in death. "The view from 100 is, to this centenarian, illuminating and surprising," he writes. "With this book I am free: from contracts, from long-deferred to-do books, in short, from producing any new words. I have said my say, done my work." There's no doubt about that, and Sailor and Fiddler is a lovely coda to the career of a man who made American literature a kinder, smarter, better place.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.