Richard Bon's Reviews > The Naked and the Dead

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
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Jun 07, 12

Read in May, 2012

This was the first I’ve read of Norman Mailer and I was extremely disappointed. I had high hopes for this novel with its billing as ‘The Greatest War Novel Produced in This Century.’ What? Every war novel written in the 20th century I’ve read trumps this one. Mailer’s writing felt forced – his weaving of soldier’s back stories into the narrative I found clumpy, the details unrealistic – his portrayal of General Cummings’ thought processes bordered on ridiculous at times – and none of the plot lines ever came together for me.

Perhaps in 1948 when this book was first published, a General commanding an important offensive in a major war being secretly gay and very lonely intrigued people. Reading it in 2012, however, the General seemed an empty shell of a character, selfish and vindictive, his closet homosexuality an illogical excuse for his incompetence as a leader. His actions toward Hearn, a soldier on whom he had an unrequited crush, were cold and bizarre and unconvincing, in my opinion.

Croft, the leader of the reconnaissance unit featured throughout most of the story, a cold, calculating, jealous, ultra-competitive bastard, never gets his comeuppance and his demeanor is never entirely explained. Mailer tries to present and define so many soldiers with such a haphazard style that as a reader I never felt like I understood or related to any of them, least of all Croft. Hard for me to write here that an author of Mailer’s stature should’ve done something differently, but the book may have worked better for me if he’d focused closely on three to five characters instead of attempting to portray so many so deeply.

The only positive I’ll mention here is the idea of the reconnaissance mission that spans the majority of the second half of the book, but its execution, to me, just had so many holes in it. Cummings’ indifference from afar, the war’s accidental ending, Croft and his troops’ final retreat from a swarm of bees after the Japanese had, unbeknownst to them, already conceded defeat, it all amounted to a huge letdown after a long buildup. Perhaps Mailer’s intention was to show the randomness of war, the luck involved, the fate of soldiers beyond exhaustion and on the brink of physical and mental collapse resting on chance, but it didn’t work for me.

Sorry Norman Mailer, but if this novel is considered one of your greatest achievements, then I don’t think I’ll be reading any of your others.
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