Few writers have written as well or as long as Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk, whose work includes, "The Caine Mutiny", "The Winds of War", and "War and Remembrance," to name just a few. His latest and 12th novel is titled "A Hole in Texas," and it’s already receiving wonderful reviews. Wouk discusses his new book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:
The Particle Physicist
We all have bad days, and Dr. Guy Carpenter awoke to rain drumming on gray windows, with a qualm in his gut about what this drab day might bring. Late at night an E-mail had come in, summoning him to an urgent morning meeting at the Jet Propulsion Lab with no reason given, an ill omen indeed to a survivor of the abort on the Texas plain. He was in pajamas at the desk in his den, gnawing at a slice of Swiss cheese on sourdough bread as he marked up a gloomy cost estimate of new space telescopes, when his wife burst in, her long black hair hanging in wet tangled ringlets, her soaked nightgown clinging transparently to her slim body. “Sweeney got out,” she barked.
“No! How, this time?”
“I took out the trash, that’s how. They collect it Wednesday at seven, or have you forgotten? It’s raining buckets, I hurried, I left the screen door unlatched, and the bastard slipped out. I tried to catch him and got drenched.”
“I’ll find him.”
“Don’t you have that meeting at seven-thirty? I’m wet through and stark naked, as you see, or I’d look for him.”
“No problem. Sorry about the trash.”
Dr. Carpenter threw on a raincoat and plodded out barefoot on slippery grass. The downpour was helpful. Sweeney hated the wet, so he would be holed up in some dry spot of the backyard instead of hightailing it over the fence for a major chase, and if that failed, a general neighborhood alarm. Penny’s obsession for keeping her cat indoors was a given of their marriage. Wonderful wife, Penny, with a human weakness or two such as a slight streak of jealousy and an unarguable dogma that outside cats were short-lived. Sweeney, a resourceful Siamese, ignored her for a doting fool, he knew he would never die, and he lay in wait for any chance to get out.
Poking here and there, Carpenter spied the bedraggled creature under a padded lounge chair. Okay, Sweeney! He crouched to grab the beast. Sweeney inched rearward just beyond his grasp, blinking at him. Standard cat maneuver, but this was no time for such foolery, so Carpenter kicked the chair aside and pounced on the cat. With an electric stab of pain, his back went out. Three weeks of slow healing, shot in an instant! He had pulled a muscle playing tennis, with an overhand smash at set point plunk into the net; and now this, no tennis for at least another three weeks. Standard Carpenter performance, he thought, clutching at his throbbing back. Guy’s colleagues regarded him as a top man in high-energy physics, his wife Penny adored him when he remembered to take out the trash, but he had a downbeat opinion of Dr. Guy Carpenter, due to a perfectionist bent always nagging at his self-esteem.
“Bad cat,” Penny said as he brought Sweeney in, meowing in outrage. Muffled in a bathrobe, she was drying her hair. “Good Lord, you’re drowned. I hope you didn’t catch your death. The Project Scientist phoned in a huge tizzy —”
“Call her back, say I’m on my way.”
Wincing at each move, he dressed, limped out to the garage, and eased himself into his car. When he pressed the garage-door opener, nothing happened. What now? Low battery? He lurched to Penny’s car and tried her remote. It did not work, either. The wall button goosed the door to rattle upward a foot, then it halted. He had never before tried using the manual lift. How did it work, exactly? He grasped the thick rough cord in both hands and with excruciating pain hauled the screeching door halfway up, where it stuck. His lower back aflame, pulsating, he called the Project Scientist on his cell phone to beg off from the meeting.
She was unsympathetic. “Guy, take a couple of Aleves. Peter’s on his way. Why don’t I alert him to pick you up? You’ve got to be here.”
“Why me, Ottoline? I’m crippled, I tell you —”
“You know more about the Superconducting Super Collider than anyone here.”
“The Super Collider? So what? It was killed back in ’93. It’s dead and forgotten.”
“How’s that? For crying out loud, Ottoline, what’s up?”
“Not over the phone. I’ll page Peter and see you in a bit.”
Penny said, “Aleve, my foot,” and gave him two of her migraine capsules. “These will do the trick.”
“Codeine? I’ll be a zombie,” he protested, downing them.
“All the better. Don’t commit yourself to anything involving colliders.”
“Not with a knife at my throat.”
Soft soothing warmth gradually suffused his back as he waited for Peter Braunstein. Memories flooded him, memories long suppressed, released and made dreamily vivid by the opiate. Those years in alien Texas, years of working his heart out on that stupendous machine; years of the greatest fun and challenge in his life, and the worst frustration! He knew too much, that was the trouble. The monster might well have worked, but then again, every one of those ten thousand supermagnets had to function flawlessly, and they were his responsibility. He had fought in vain for more time, more careful designing, more testing. Hurry, hurry, national prestige at stake, get the thing going, then see! That was the word from on high, with unsubtle slurs about his foot-dragging —
“Guy?” Peter Braunstein on the cell phone. “I’m calling from my car. You okay?”
“I’ll live. What the devil’s going on, Peter?”
“I just asked Ottoline when she called me about you. She said, ‘Budget,’ and hung up. Be right there.”
Budget . . . The haunt of modern science . . . The delayed-action bomb that had sunk the SSC! The NASA budget review in Congress happened every year around this time. NASA supported the Jet Propulsion Lab, JPL supported the Terrestrial Planet Finder, and that project was Ottoline’s baby, so no doubt that was why she was on edge. Still, why the urgency? Their project had never yet run into a money problem. The Terrestrial Planet Finder was part of NASA’s Origins Program, which was exploring two grand questions about human existence:
(1) Are we alone? (2) Where did we come from?
A tall order, a noble endeavor, and their part of it was to search for signs of life on planets circling remote stars. The new space telescopes, if they could get the budget for them, would go a long way toward solving these riddles . . .
Honk, honk outside the garage. Stooping to pass under the half-raised door was pleasantly painless. Guy’s burly bearded tennis partner, a Cornell classmate and now an eminent astrophysicist, helped him into the high front seat of a battered camper. It was Peter Braunstein who, after the Texas debacle, had recruited Guy for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He said as he drove, “Well, let’s hope it’s NASA that’s getting the heat, not our project.”
“Peter, we’re small potatoes.”
“We’re NASA small potatoes, Guy. NASA’s been in trouble ever since the last Americans flew off the moon, you know that. No one big mission, a grab bag of dicey missions like ours, the media just yawn at the marvelous leaps ahead in space science, and every now and then a disaster throws the whole nervous bureaucracy into shock —”
“Go ahead, cheer me up,” said Carpenter. He was happy at JPL, proud of his work on the Planet Finder, and he tried not to think beyond his day-to-day work. For a high-energy physicist, relocating yet again at his age would be murder.
“Oh, Ottoline’s the worrier. I think we’ll be okay. It’s just that Congress is muttering more and more every year about money for NASA. Martian landscapes and floating astronauts are getting to be old stuff, Guy. Where’s the payoff?”
“A new more powerful bomb, you mean?” said Guy Carpenter. “Contact with aliens, maybe?”
“Something,” said Braunstein, swinging the car into the JPL parking lot.
Excerpted from "A Hole in Texas." Copyright © 2004 by Herman Wouk. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown & Co. To learn more about the book, you can visit: