Matt's Reviews > The Naked and the Dead

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
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's review
Apr 26, 16

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bookshelves: historical-fiction, world-war-ii
Read in November, 2009

Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead is War and Peace as written by Larry David. It has all the Tolstoyean hallmarks: dozens of main characters; an ever-shifting third-person point of view; and lengthy, turgid digressions on History, Philosophy, and the like.

It also has a thoroughly misanthropic point of view. This book reminded me of nothing so much as an episode of Seinfeld set during the Pacific War. The characters are all hateful, spiteful, little men. None of them are likable. Nothing really happens. There is no great set piece battle, which you might expect when reading a war novel (the war novel, according to the cover). And the ending is straight out of the Seinfeld finale, with the action devolving from black comedy to farce, and the hateful, spiteful, little characters left utterly unredeemed. Mailer's ultimate disgust for his creations is utterly brimming on the last few pages.

The Naked and the Dead is set in the Pacific theater during World War II. Is is putatively interested in the invasion of the fictional island of Anopopei. The main characters are the men of an Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) platoon: Lieutenant Hearn, Sgt. Croft, Sgt. Brown, and your typical ethnic and cultural grab bag of enlisted men: Goldstein and Roth (the Jews); Martinez (the Mexican); Wilson (the redneck).

At the beginning of the novel, I was actually impressed with the depth of these characters. Though some of them are archetypes of the genre, Mailer gets really deep into their psyche. You literally are privy to all their thoughts (which are often petty, self-absorbed, and relatable). Then, after awhile, I realized that all the characters were having these same thoughts. And all of them exhibited the same disgust for their fellow man, while outwardly attempting to conform to the expectations of society. Pretty soon, the characters started to meld into one, and all I knew was that they were all pretty much dicks. I had to recall the one thing that set each guy apart: Red had bad kidneys; Gallagher had the pregnant wife; Stanley was a brown-noser.

Only three men stood out: General Cummings, because he was a general; Lt. Hearn, who was Cummings' foil, and engages in a series of Important discussions with the general; and Sgt. Croft, the psychopath. Of the three, only Croft is memorable. He is as unlikable as the rest; even more so. Yet his awfulness at least elevates him to an over-the-top villain. For instance, in one unforgettable scene, Croft gives a Japanese prisoner a cigarette, then blows him away:

Croft felt his head pulsing with an intense excitement. There were tears in the prisoner's eyes again, and Croft looked at them dispassionately. He gazed once about the little draw, and watched a fly crawl over the mouth of one of the corpses. The prisoner had taken a deep puff and was leaning back now against the trunk of the tree. His eyes had closed, and for the first time there was a dreamy expression on his face. Croft felt a bitter tension work itself into his throat and leave his mouth dry and bitter and demanding. His mind had been entirely empty until now, but abruptly he brought up his rifle and pointed it at the prisoner's head...The prisoner did not have time to change his expression before the shot crashed into his skull. He slumped forward, and then rolled on his side. He was still smiling but looked silly now.

The reality of war is that it's mostly boring. You read the statistics and are shocked to learn that only 1% of soldiers actually see combat, while the rest are relegated to the numerous support positions: cooks, medical personnel, drivers, etc. That is reality. It doesn't work in a novel. Your English teacher was right: there does need to be some sort of conflict to propel the story. In a war novel, that generally means a battle of some sorts (I mean, a war novel without a war is like a porno consisting solely of dialogue. Right?)

For the first 400 pages or so, the book just meanders forward, with the men of I&R sitting around, grousing to each other, and generally being insufferable. There is a brief skirmish at the river, which is really sort of distracting, owing to Mailer's gross over use of onomatopoeia. For several pages, my copy of The Naked and the Dead looked like an old Batman cartoon. POW! BANG! ZOOP! (I just made that last one up).

Finally, the I&R platoon is given a scouting mission. They are sent around to the back of the island and told to gather intelligence on the Japanese. They run into trouble. One man is killed and another wounded. The squad splits, half the men taking the wounded man back, the other half plunging forward. Suddenly, there is conflict, there is forward progress...and then, inexplicably, the farce begins. After hundreds of pages of struggle and toil, the platoon is sent running after it stumbles into a bee hive. Perhaps if I had known from the outset that this was satire... Anyway, 700 pages in, I was less than amused. It was as though Steven Spielberg had handed over the last 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan to the Coen Brothers circa-Fargo. I felt like Mailer was laughing on me; like he'd pulled a fast one. Ha ha, the jokes on you. The denouement is all black comedy, with the finale focusing on Major Dalleson's attempt to get a Betty Grable pinup for a map-reading course.

I'm not kidding. The ending pissed me off.

I was also annoyed with the use of "fug" for the more colorful, the more elegant "f**k". Apparently, this was self-imposed censorship, suggested by the publishers. I guess this shocks me, considering that we'd just finished incinerating 100,000 Japanese women and children in Tokyo, then topped that by shadow-blasting 100,000 more with nuclear weapons. Yet the delicate American sensitivity could not tolerate a profanity alluding to the act of lovemaking? Sheesh. Thanks for the sexual hangups, Puritans!

I was further annoyed with Mailer's literary affectations, notably "The Time Machine" and the "Chorus." The Time Machine is a flashback device. Some of them were okay, especially Croft's. Most of them, however, do little to illuminate the characters. Moreover, they are often painfully hard to read, since they are written in the idiom of the stunted character at the center of the flashback. The Chorus sections are just plain showing off. They are written like a play, dialogue only, and touch on a certain topic chosen by Mailer, such as what the soldiers are going to do when they get home.

There are some beautiful passages in the book, and some wonderfully memorably scenes. There are two deaths, for instance, that really stuck in my mind. Funnily, these were scenes that were underwritten when compared with the rest of the book. They were short, elegant, haunting. Mostly, though, the The Naked and the Dead serves to demonstrate what happens when you write a war novel about nothing.
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