Review: The Commodore, by P. T. Deutermann
St. Martin’s, 2016. 296 pp. $27
Ever wonder what it was like to command a U.S. Navy vessel in the South Pacific during World War II? Read this novel, and you’ll know.
It’s 1942, and Japanese land and naval forces are pressing the Marines dug in on Guadalcanal. The learning curve for the U.S. Navy, charged with maintaining and protecting that fragilely held Solomon Islands outpost, has been steep and costly. So many ships have been sunk that one sea lane has been nicknamed Ironbottom Sound. But Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey has been charged with winning the naval battle, and to do so, he’s assembled a task force and hand-picked his captains.
Among them is Harmon Wolf, a Native American who, before the war, overcame bigotry to graduate Annapolis with a solid record, though his temper, as well as prejudice, have held back his career. For instance, Wolf once entertained notions of entering the Navy’s aviation program, but when a superior officer tossed a racial epithet his way, he tossed the officer through a window. That was deemed bad for business, but Bull Halsey likes aggressive punchers who’ll take the battle to the enemy, and Wolf promises to be that. Soon, he’s promoted to commodore, responsible for a squadron of destroyers.
The lone wolf is a well-worn cliché in military fiction, and by naming his protagonist as he does, Deutermann’s hardly subtle. Likewise, his prose is workmanlike at best (and sometimes repeats itself). Nevertheless, he does a good job portraying the naval mindset that Halsey and his protegés must struggle against. Wolf chafes against the military dictum that junior officers don’t challenge orders, because he senses that doing things by the book will only cause disaster. He quickly realizes that the Imperial Japanese Navy is much better than the office pen-pushers suppose–specifically, that the Japanese excel at night maneuvers; deploy more accurate, reliable torpedoes; have faster ships; and, most importantly, never fall for the same ruse twice. It’s as if the American brass have succumbed to their own propaganda about an inferior, incompetent enemy, a viewpoint that Wolf risks his reputation to correct.
Halsey is different, of course, and lucky for Wolf that he is, for Harmon’s plans don’t always work; as always in war, plans change almost immediately on contact with the enemy. Moreover, the Japanese score their victories too, which adds to the tension and makes The Commodore truer to life. The battle scenes in particular come across with intense vividness; Deutermann conveys what it’s like to be on the bridge or in a control room when high explosives fill the air, and he clearly knows his way around a warship:
J. B. King palpably jumped when the snipes opened the throttles and hit the turbines with a bolus of steam for fifty thousand horsepower. The forced-draft blowers screamed as they spooled up to feed fuel oil going into the fireboxes. King was the lead ship, so if the other two didn’t get the message, there was no danger of King driving over the top of a destroyer still loafing along at fifteen knots.
If you read The Commodore simply for the thrill of action or for a taste of the South Pacific Fleet, you’ll do fine, because you haven’t expected too much. The narrative could have assumed a whole extra dimension had Wolf connected the prejudice against himself with that against the Japanese–or, for that matter, the African-American stewards aboard ship–but Deutermann doesn’t care to go there. The Navy lingo can fly too thickly at times, with COMSOPAC and Div212 and the DRT in the CIC, and I’m still not sure what a Mike boat is. But those details don’t matter, and I’m not the kind of reader who throws a fit just because there’s a word I don’t understand. The action’s pretty clear, and that’s enough.
Also, Wolf’s outspoken way and maverick thought processes make him an agreeable companion, and Deutermann drops in the “no–and furthermore” device enough to keep you guessing. But he also undercuts the tension by having Halsey intervene, just when you think that Wolf has overreached once too often. And it’s no surprise when a pretty, willing nurse shows up, a war widow who seems to spend little time or energy mourning her late husband, another timeworn cliché.
For what it is, though, The Commodore makes the grade.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.