Published in 1948, Norman Mailer’s debut novel The Naked And The Dead remains an incisive depiction of the soldier’s state of mind. The book is set on an island in the Pacific theater, as the United States tried to roll back the Japanese threat in the final stages of the Second World War, and thrusts the reader into the trenches alongside members of a platoon. The plot, consisting chiefly of the American effort to take control of the island, is thin, and little more than a backdrop against which we get to know the platoon and the motivations that drive the military chain of command. In this, Mailer is remarkably successful, and by the end we are intimates with the motley bunch, privy to their hopes and fears. Some characters emerge in a more sympathetic light than others, but not one is unequivocally evil. Mailer seems to be saying that their actions, heroic or cowardly, cannot be judged in isolation, that the way they react in the face of adversity is a composite of their experiences in combat but also from their lives before the war, and that the strength of their survival instinct is in direct proportion to the optimism with which they regard a future after the war.
Throughout, the rigors of military life on the island are interrupted with vignettes from each character’s past. The most detailed of these belong to Lieutenant Hearn and General Cummings; Hearn comes from an aristocratic family but has wandered off to become the stereotypical bourgeois liberal, idealistic, insubordinate, and flirting with communism. Cummings, on the other hand, is an authoritarian, brutal in his assessment of human nature, and philosophical over the nature of conflict. In one passage, he draws a Spenglerian analogy between the parabolic arc of the mortar shell as it travels from out of the cannon towards its target, and the life-and-death cycle of civilizations and that of the individual human being himself. At another time, in what today reads as a prescient analysis of future world-power dynamics, he describes how war is essentially a tool for converting a nation’s inherent potential energy into real and concerted action. German expansionism during World War Two owed chiefly to this latent potential, her excesses no more a result of a moral vacuum than that of the limited physical resources at her disposal. Cummings predicts that the next hundred years or more will belong to America, on account of the sheer energies, both material and political, unleashed in the service of the war. He postulates that America will become increasingly convinced of her “manifest destiny” as a global hegemon, and orient all of her institutions towards that end with the ambition and ruthlessness befitting of a true empire.
The exchanges between Hearn and Cummings crackle with homosexual tension and comprise the intellectual heft of the book. It is the other members of the platoon, however, the average grunts in foxholes, that humanize this narrative. Collected from across the breadth of American life, they are in many ways postcards from that country’s experience; the frontier mentality, respect for hard graft, casual racism, and beatnik irreverence, all find expression in their banter and reminiscences. Some of them are wizened veterans of several campaigns, convinced after witnessing so much senseless death that the bullet with their name on it must not be long in coming. Others are young men newly drafted with dreams of moving up the army hierarchy but quickly robbed of those illusions. Nerves taut and bodies broken, most of them verge on giving up at one time or another, but the one note of optimism that emerges from their precarious condition is that men, despite all their prejudice, forge a brotherhood in the face of shared tribulations, to lend some of their reserves of strength to those who have none left.
Two passages of special note stand out, and both revolve around the premise of death, in the abstract and as a real thing. In the first, Gallagher’s wife dies on the mainland during childbirth. In a sequence of events that feels macabre at first but eventually achieves a poignant climax, he continues receiving the letters she wrote him leading up to her labor. The post, however, delivers on a slow and sporadic schedule, often a long time after the letters were written. Gallagher receives news of his wife’s death from the chaplain and goes numb, only to be greeted with fresh dispatches from her not long after. As time goes on, he synchronizes the post’s time table with her letters, until the day comes when he knows that the letter in his hands would have to be the last one she ever wrote. He avoids opening it to delay acknowledgement of what has already happened, knowing full well that he won’t put his wife to rest until he has read her last words.
The other account is a vivid and protracted description of what a slow death by degrees might feel like. Shot in the stomach during an ambush, Wilson alternately hallucinates and lapses into agony; his physical world achieves strange dimensions and his fevered mind scrambles his memories. His litter-bearers are tormented by his pain, flinching at his screams as if his wound were their own. Exhausted as they are, they deliberate whether it would be better to give him up for lost, but they are called to see within themselves and realize they are made of nobler stuff than they thought before. These men, the salt of the earth, may be too coarse to articulate their impressions in the manner of a Hearn or a Cummings, but they receive those impressions all the same, more or less as a mist that works its way into their subconscious unbeknownst to them to evoke an equally powerful emotional response.
There is a curious intimacy to these parts and they are written with delicacy. And yet, for all the existential issues it deals with, and despite its 700-pages length, The Naked And The Dead is a surprisingly breezy read. Mailer uses a lot of dialogue in the vernacular to speed things up, but even his scene-setting and military set-pieces, of which there are copious quantities, are not without a certain rhythm. Some have accused this novel of clunky character development; that complaint may have some basis, seeing as how Mailer tries to distribute time more or less equally among a large ensemble. It may be helpful, however, to view these characters as archetypes and receptacles for experiences shared by all participants to conflict through time. Faces change and contexts vary, but the humanity underneath stays the same. Seen in that light, the experience itself becomes an overarching character in its own right.