My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer was first published when the man was only twenty-six years old, and even he described his younger self as knowing ”very little about the subtler demands of a good style” and that ”he hardly knew whether he should stand in the shadow of Tolstoy or was essentially without talent” (p xi); but we can all agree that the writer of this war novel ”was an amateur” (p xi). Regardless, that amateur wrote one hell of a book that later became a best-seller. Mailer called it his ”only prodigious best-seller [because] it had immediacy, it came out at exactly the right time when…everyone was ready for a big war novel that gave some idea of what it had all been like” (p xi).
The Naked and the Dead is concerned with the invasion and taking of the Japanese-controlled island of Anopopei. Most of the 721-page book follows a platoon as they prepare to land on the island until the successful American victory, with some inserts from ”The Time Machine” to give back story to the platoon of foot soldiers the nameless, omniscient narrator follows through the campaign in third person POV.
Part of the plight with this book is the young writer’s philosophy that he attempts to inject when he sees fit, and it can range from war to whoring, from murder to adultery, or from anti-Semitism to American patriotism.
”There are just two main elements,” writes Mailer as the narrator, ”A nation fights well in proportion to the amount of men and materials it has. And the other equation is that the individual soldier in that army is a more effective soldier the poorer his standard of living has been in the past…After a couple of years of war, there are only two considerations that make a good army: a superior material force and a poor standard of living. Why do you think a regiment of Southerners is worth two regiments of Easterners?” (p 174-175)
It doesn’t help Mailer any with this social commentary of superiority when the characters nickname Martinez, a Mexican from Texas, as Japbait.
Mailer continues this type of insight on page 323 in Cummings’s section:
”There had been a deep satisfaction in expounding this, a pleasure apart from all the other concerns of this discussion with Hearn…”
[It is beneficial to point out here that Cummings will later send Robert Hearn to his death on a recon mission for Hearn’s insubordination.]
”…’I’ve been trying to impress you, Robert, that the only morality of the future is a power morality, and a man who cannot find his adjustment to it is doomed. There’s one thing about power. It can flow only from the top down. When there are a little surges of resistance at the middle levels, it merely calls for more power to be directed downward, to burn it out.”’
As amusing this may be to some, what is equally disturbing is that Mailer continually seeps in this class-idealogue throughout an otherwise interesting and captivating narrative. At times, Mailer dances on the slippery edge of becoming what Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 became in 1961.
Mailer, however, does redeem himself with such powerful descriptive writing that one stands in awe of how such a young man can be able to provoke words into such sharp images. ”Outside,” Mailer writes on page 230, ”the air is cold like a tart and icy apple.” And a few pages later, on page 235, Mailer knocks the scene out of the ballpark with this double-flashback scene from Red Valsen’s Time Machine:
On his last pass before he went overseas, Red wandered around San Francisco. He climbed up to the top of Telegraph Hill, and shivered in the fall winds sweeping across the summit. A tanker was heading for the Golden Gate, and he watched it, and then stared across Oakland as far as he could see in the east. (After Chicago the land was flat for a thousand miles, across Illinois and Iowa and halfway into Nebraska. On a train you could read a magazine for an afternoon, then look out the window, and the country would seem exactly the same as when you had stared out before. The foothills began as gentle rolls in the plain and after a hundred miles became isolated as hills, took almost a thousand miles to become mountains. And on the way were the steep brown hills that massed into Montana.)
Landscape, whether on the island or in the Bronx or in California, does become a dominant figure, much like it does in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and one pauses at times to consider what it should exactly mean in the larger scope of the novel. Perhaps it means nothing at all, much like the war at times.
Nevertheless, Anopopei and Mount Anaka emerge as foreboding and dominant figures that appear inimical and undefeatable toward the end of the novel (the real story begins after page 450*) when the recon team are ordered to the south of the island to see if they can slip through a pass and behind the Japanese forces stationed at the Toyaku Line.
”The sunset was magnificent with the intensity and brilliance that can be found only in the tropics. The entire sky was black with the impending rain except for a narrow ribbon along the horizon. The sun had already disappeared, but its reflection was compressed, channeled into a band of color where the sky met the water. The sunset made an arc along the water like the cove of a harbor, but a strange and illusory harbor, washed in a vivid spectrum of crimson and golden yellows and canary greens. There was a string of tiny clouds shaped like miniature plump sausages and they had become a royal stippled purple. After a time, the men had the impression they were staring at a fabulous island which could have existed only in their imagination. Each detail glowed, became quiveringly real. There was a beach whose sands were polished and golden, and on the false shore a grove of trees had turned a magnificent lavender-blue in the dusk. The beach was separate from everything they had ever known; it possessed every outcropping of rock, every curve of sand dune on a barren and gelid shore, but this beach was alive and quivering with warmth. Above the purple foliage the land rose in pink and violet dales, shading finally into the overcast above the harbor. The water before them, illumined by the sunset, had become the deep clear blue of the sky on a summer sky evening.
”It was a sensual isle, a Biblical land of ruby wines and golden sands and indigo trees. The men stared and stared. The island hovered before them like an Oriental monarch’s conception of heaven, and they responded to it with an acute and terrible longing. It was vision of all the beauty for which they had ever yearned, all the ecstasy they had ever sought. For a few minutes it dissolved the long dreary passage of the mute months in the jungle, without hope, without pride. If they had been alone they might have stretched out their arms to it.”
Croft, who takes over command once Hearn is killed, soon finds this heaven becoming a hell. He can trust no one and he is losing control of his men as the island slowly conquers the men’s hearts and courage. The hours and days and miles of hiking through dense, torrid jungle quickly fade the recon team’s spirit and comradeliness.
”The sound of [Roth’s] voice, already defeated, worked a spasm through Croft’s fingers. He heard a little numbly the choked squeal of the bird, the sudden collapsing of its bones. It thrashed powerlessly against his palm, and the action aroused him to nausea and rage again. He felt himself hurling the bird away over the other side of the hollow, more than a hundred feet. His breath expelled itself powerfully, without realizing it, he had not inhaled for many seconds. The reaction left his knees trembling” (p 530).
And after being attacked and driven out of the pass, Croft decides to take some men up and over Mount Anaka, which ”rose far above them, ascending as high as they could see in tier upon tier of forest and clay and jungle and rock, rising vertiginously for what seemed like thousands and thousands of feet. They could not even glimpse the peak; it was lost in a coronet of clouds” (p 643).
And despite all the warnings, Croft orders the men over the mountain. ”Behind [Croft] Mount Anaka bored into his back as if it were a human thing. He turned around and stared at it soberly, feeling again the crude inarticulate thrill it always gave him. He was going to climb it; he swore it to himself” (p 643).
And by the end of the book, Croft once more is faced with the awful and majestic power of the mountain that defeated him and claimed the life of Roth.
”[Croft] had failed, and it hurt him vitally. His frustration was loose again. He would never have another opportunity to climb it. And yet he was wondering if he could have succeeded. Once more he was feeling the anxiety and terror the mountain had roused on the rock stairway. If he had gone alone, the fatigue of the other men would not have slowed him but he would not have had their company, and he realized suddenly that he could not have gone without them. The empty hills would have eroded any man’s courage” (p 709).
And this last passage might sum up best the entire message of the novel: that a war is made up of individual men and the wars that rage inside each of them.
All in all, The Naked and the Dead is a superb novel and gains depth after the midway point (after page 450 or so). Despite the numerous and unnecessary interruptions with ”The Time Machine” sections that are not needed to understand the select cast of soldiers on the island, and despite the story being filled with more possible POV characters that one can follow easily in a single reading, the novel does has its lasting qualities that continue to pull the reader along. It is not so much that you begin to care about the characters (most of the soldiers hate each other anyway), but like the soldiers on this island during this war, you want to share the experiences with them and finish the job to the end. A strong recommend.
*Mailer writes of an epoch’s arch: ”An epoch always seems to reach its zenith at a point past the middle of its orbit in time. The fall is always more rapid than the rise. And isn’t that the curve of tragedy; I should think it a sound aesthetic principle that the growth of a character should take longer to accomplish than his disaster” (p 569-570).
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers