Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead

The Naked and the DeadI have taken one creative writing course in my life, in high school, and I remember with embarrassment how my earliest pieces were about war and combat – surely the two things furthest removed from my life of quiet comfort in a New England boarding school. But I wanted to write something important, something with emotional heft, and surely I thought that the sombre subject matter would supply the gravity my writing could not. And, in my defense, I felt war’s presence all my life. My grandfather and uncles had served, and the schools I attended kept alive the memory of their war dead, both through regular memorial services and engraved plaques that decorated the long hallways between classrooms. It’s easy to understand war’s perennial attraction to writers – no other undertaking quite encapsulates humanity’s capacity for contradictions, for heroism and cruelty, wisdom and folly. But it is exactly its expansiveness as a theme that also makes it extremely difficult to write well about.

Norman Mailer was just 23 years old when he began work on what would become The Naked And The Dead, but he was so confident in his promise that he attempted to secure a draft deferral based on his writing, and had not completed basic training before he began boasting to friends that he would write “the war novel.” In the preface to the 50th anniversary edition, he confesses to this excess confidence in describing himself:

Still, he was naive, he was passionate about writing, he knew very little about the subtler demands of a good style, he did not have a great deal of restraint, and he burned with excitement as he wrote. He hardly knew if he should stand in the shadow of Tolstoy or was essentially without talent. He was an amateur.

An amateur, but not without ambition. The Naked And The Dead is nearly 750 pages in length, with multiple characters whose backstories gradually Mailer unfolds, shedding light on their fears, their ambitions and their relationships with family and, above all, women. The cast of characters is itself diverse: two Jews and a Mexican – all of whom feel themselves to be outsiders – and men of every rank and station, from lowly grunts to demanding officers and a calculating, power-mad general.

Mailer’s characters belong to the 460th Infantry Regiment, who are tasked with wrestling control of the fictional island of Anopopei from an entrenched Japanese army. We are not 40 pages in before the first casualty, a young enlisted man named Hennessey:

He thought for an instant, “There’s some soldiers after them Japs with the mortar.” Then he heard the terrible siren of the mortar shell coming down on him. He pirouetted in a little circle, and threw himself to the ground. Perhaps he felt the explosion before a piece of shrapnel tore his brain in half.

The men of the regiment don’t stop to mourn his loss; they’ve grown wary of friendship, knowing, from experience, the dangers of growing too close to one another. Because they do not open up to one another, at least not with any consistency, Mailer uses flashbacks to flesh out their backstories, and readers will note an odd paradox of the war novel: not a single character on Anopopei is female, and yet women – wives, girlfriends and lovers – are the common preoccupation of the men. Is a particular girlfriend likely to wait for her man’s return? Is so-and-so’s wife remaining faithful? The two main things the men bond over are the recounting of past sexual conquests and the fear of being cuckolded, and insecurity of the latter seems correlated with experience in the former. The exception is Roy Gallagher, a Boston native whose wife, seven months pregnant at the novel’s outset, managed to pull him out of the chauvinistic Christian gang he joined in his youth, prior to his military service. While the other men trade stories, he expresses concern that he is wasting too much of his salary on liquor and gambling, rather than saving it for his future family. He learns, via the regiment’s priest, that his wife has died in childbirth, but owing to delays in the military postal service, he continues to receive letters from her sent before her death. His grief at his wife’s loss provides a chilling contrast to the sex-and-cuckoldry talk of his peers.

There is another aspect of the novel that seems to call attention to itself: the island itself, and in particular the treacherous mountain at its center. As a final act of folly, the men are made to go on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines, and then to ascend this dangerous peak. From a strategic perspective, nothing is gained from ascending the mountain, and the commanding officer knows this, but still he urges the men forward until, at last, the mountain defeats them. Exhausted from marching, bodies broken from combat, they are forced back to the beach on which they originally landed, where they are picked up by a transport boat. Here is Mailer’s description of that return journey:

Their bodies ached and they felt no desire to walk about the narrow confines of the troop well, but still they were subtly restless. The patrol was over and yet they had so little to anticipate. The months and years ahead were very palpable to them. They were still on the treadmill, the misery, the ennui, the dislocated horror… Things would happen and time would pass, but there was no hope, no anticipation. There would be nothing but the deep cloudy dejection that overcast everything.

Not ten pages later, Mailer switches to the perspective of the commanding officers, for whom “the important thing was always to tot up your profit and loss,” and of course assign credit for the campaign. The closing scene is of an officer congratulating himself for what he thinks is a breakthrough in the teaching of map reading: he will have coordinates superimposed on the image of a pinup girl, to help motivate the men to study.

This mixing of the absurd and the serious undercuts his purpose somewhat, giving The Naked And The Dead a kind of identity crisis midway between Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front and something like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, never quite reaching the sincerity of the former or the satiric heights of the latter. There are also a handful of awkward phrasings that eject the reader from the narrative (“Outside the sky was darkening and the foliage yawned flacidly in the turgid suggestion of a breeze”). And yet Mailer’s ambition is such that, even in missing his mark, he produced a deeply affecting portrait of men in combat.