The death of the celebrated American Jewish writer Herman Wouk last month, at the age of one-hundred-three, led Jonathan Karp to reflect on Wouk’s second novel, City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder:
A small comic masterpiece that has been accurately described as an urban Jewish Tom Sawyer, City Boy is a classic of the young-adult genre avant la lettre. As with [Wouk’s better-known] Marjorie Morningstar, the fact that the action takes place in a thickly Jewish environment is both essential and inconsequential to the book’s enjoyment. Eleven-year-old Herbie is a universal type: diminutive, overweight, bookish, and unathletic, yet a true boy nonetheless, whose quest for the pretty red-headed fille fatale, Lucile Glass, drives him to acts of foolhardy bravery and reckless derring-do we would otherwise not expect from such an apprentice schlemiel. . . .
City Boy is a testament to Herman Wouk’s comic genius, his satiric wit, and his narrative aplomb. The story races to a suspenseful climax, too convoluted and improbable to summarize here but nevertheless entirely convincing and mesmerizing for the charmed reader. At the same time, the novel is not without its serious side. Young Herbie does triumph over adversity in the end—the scholar Bookbinder vanquishing his nemesis, the truculent Krieger—but this is [nothing like the 1984 film] Revenge of the Nerds.
The camp’s homespun handyman, Elmer Bean, in the midst of an extraordinary goodbye, . . . offers the hero only his mixed endorsement: “Herb—I dunno what to tell you, Herb. You might be a very big guy someday, an’ then again I dunno.” Herbie has employed deceit and theft to win the day—and the heart of his fair lady. Before the book’s end, he must at last confront the real ethical hurdles to his becoming a true mensch.
What it took to become a mensch remained one of the abiding themes of Herman Wouk’s fiction over the many decades after the publication of City Boy. It was certainly what he was thinking about when he wrote in his enduringly popular This Is My God that “the core of Judaism is right conduct to other people.” What has been labeled Wouk’s conservatism was more accurately an ethical commitment that rooted his fiction in a quest to transcend human foibles even as he took great relish in exposing them.