Book Review: "The Naked and the Dead"
In 1947, when censorship in the arts was still strong and the public was thought to be sensitive to obscenities, publishers convinced young Norman Mailer, recently returned from duty in the Philippines, to change the use of one particularly common obscenity in his debut novel from four letters to three. Thus the book today contains several dozen “fugs”. The press agent for the actress Tallulah Bankhead circulated a story that when Ms. Bankhead met Mailer she told him, “You’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell…”
The Naked and the Dead was one of the first novels to be written by an active combatant in the second World War and it quickly rose to the bestseller list. Mailer never was able to duplicate such commercial success, despite going on to enjoy a long and relatively distinguished career.
I think one of the problems with the war novel as a genre is that its author is likely to know either too little about his subject or too much. Those veterans who are steeped in the experience of war have a tendency to record every tedious detail of it in ways that will bore the ordinary reader. Those who write from a secondhand experience tend to get bogged down in politics or sociology.
In The Naked and the Dead, Mailer avoids some of the pratfalls of the war novel by incorporating several innovative devices to take the reader away from the confining all-male world of a tropical island in the Pacific. The most commonly used, "The Time Machine", is his way of telling us in flashback the life story of each of the Marines who is now caught on Anopopei Island. Also effective is his occasional use of a Chorus, a lá the Greek drama, to summarize the interior thoughts and attitudes of the soldiers.
A platoon of middle-grade marines, under the command of an insecure commander, General Cummings, is stationed on Anopopei Island in the Pacific during World War 2. Cummings fraternizes with one of his orderlies named Hearn and is occasionally upstaged by him and offended by his lack of respect. In planning an attack on Japanese forces under the command of General Toyaku, Cummings sends out a reconnaissance unit to determine the extent of Japanese entrenchment on our near the Toyaku Line. In order to punish Hearn for insubordination, Cummings assigns him the task of leading the reconnaissance mission to a remote part of the island around the forbidding Mt. Anaka.
Hearn clashes with a salty and insolent lieutenant named Croft. Croft convinces a soldier named Martinez, a blindly loyal Mexican American, to lie about a solo scouting mission in which Martinez has killed a Japanese soldier. Hearn, misled by Martinez's false information, authorizes a march up to Mt. Anaka and is killed in a skirmish. Croft takes over the platoon and tyrannically orders the men to continue what is evidently a futile trek through the wilderness. One of his men, Wilson, suffers a gunshot wound in the stomach and dies while four soldiers attempt to carry him back to base in a stretcher. Another soldier, Roth, falls to his death over a cliff in the rough ascent up Mt. Anaka.
The march is eventually halted by a nest of stinging hornets near the summit which causes the men to retreat. In the meantime, Gen. Cummings' subordinate, Major Dalleson, has authorized an attack which has completely wiped out the Japanese forces, who were starving and undersupplied. The soldiers from Croft's aborted reconnaissance mission realize their mission was a complete waste of life and time.
Mailer adds a new twist to the common theme of war as a bloody and violent hell and a senseless clash of male egos. Through the use of the Time Machine he humanizes men who would otherwise be inarticulate and nameless drones. He occasionally fails to offer us much distinction among the soldiers. They all seem to have met and married a girl named Mary or Sue in Anytown, USA, to have whored and bummed their way around various back alleys and backwaters, and to have ended up in the Army almost as a dead end.
It's perhaps true that most soldiers in any unit have fairly similar backgrounds, but I think Mailer would have succeeded better if he had concentrated on one or two of the interesting characters he created (Hearn or Croft, for example) rather than moving the spotlight randomly over the rank and file.
And this, I believe, is the chief deficiency of The Naked and the Dead. Rather than concentrating its energies on a single protagonist, it has ten or eleven. Mailer himself, in the preface to the 50th anniversary edition, described it as the work of an "amateur" and lamented its occasionally facile prose.
I think the prose is generally quite good, but the point-of-view is muddled. The reader doesn't quite grasp until many chapters into the narrative who the characters of interest are. And in the end, one feels as if he's waded through a silo full of chaff in search of a few kernels of grain. Who is the main character of the novel? Is it the Island itself, the Military Machine, the War? I think a single human character would be more effective and wouldn't in any way detract from the gritty detail Mailer includes in his descriptive prose.
© 2015 James Crawford