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The Naked and the Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition Paperback – August 5, 2000
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“The best novel to come out of the . . . war, perhaps the best book to come out of any war.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“Best novel yet about World War II.” ―Time
“Brutal, agonizing, astonishingly thoughtful.” ―Newsweek
“Nightmarish masterpiece of realism.” ―Cleveland News
“Vibrant with life, abundant with real people, full of memorable scenes. To call it merely a great book about the war would be to minimize its total achievement.” ―The Philadelphia Inquirer
“The most important American novel since Moby-Dick.” ―Providence Journal
About the Author
Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, is widely regarded as one of the finest American novels of the twentieth century. Among Norman Mailer's other achievements are Why Are We in Vietnam?, The Armies of the Night, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1968, and The Executioner's Song, which won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize.
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The book follows a general, his harried lieutenant, and a recon patrol that set out on an ill-fated mission toward a formidable mountain in the Pacific. I had several problems with this novel, chief among them the "Time Machine" device that Mailer uses to describe the stateside lives of his various soldiers, prior to their arrival at the island under Japanese control. This constant interjection of the home front, complete with cliched images of both Ivy League life for the officers and the ghetto existence of enlisted Jewish and Mexican soldiers, really detracts from the relatively fewer (but very effective) battle sequences that Mailer depicts.
The characters are wooden, the Jews being too nebbish and Woody Allen-esque, the Southerners all speaking in a proud twang wherein "I'll" is always written by Mailer as "Ah'll." And like a literary equivalent of Oliver Stone (or a forbear, since Mailer was older), the author constantly detracts from the naturalistic tale with digressions that are supposed to be taken as pearls from the likes of Nietzsche or Spengler, but more often come off as soporific.
I understand many people view this as a great novel, and perhaps the greatest book ever written about war, and while I can respect that opinion, I do not count myself in that number. I think, however, that the book could be improved considerably if a diligent editor were to jettison about five-hundred pages or so, though.
2) Characters (4 stars) – Mailer takes great care in detailing his characters, devoting whole chapters to each of their backstories. But, with the exception of three – the General, Hearn, and Croft – I didn’t find any particularly interesting. They all seemed so ignorant, so repressed, such 1940s caricatures of tough guys. And on top of that, they never grew, never did anything to feel proud about. But maybe this was how people really acted back then, maybe this was how shallow and puerile the men were, and if so, then bravo for how far we’ve advanced. The only thing that kept me from giving this component a lower score was the aforementioned three characters, who were fascinating for the 33% of the story they were on stage. Which just goes to show that Mailer had the ability to draw unusual and compelling characters, but didn’t for some reason. Perhaps to make the experience more authentic? War: a never-ending nightmare of being trapped in a middle school locker room with all the idiots you hate.
3) Theme (3 stars) – There is a bit in here about the class chasm between poor enlisted folks and the rich educated officers. There’s also something about how cruel people can be both to their own as well as the enemy. And there’s certainly something about man vs. nature, about how in the end man’s war is puny against the storms and jungles and mountains. But … I’m not sure what new I was supposed to learn from any of these themes. Except, perhaps, that it’s all pointless, which is a valid but not especially useful message.
4) Voice (5 stars) – For me, this (and the setting) were the gems of the book. Mailer can write. He’s so good at pacing, so perfect at detailing, that at times I had to blink a few times and look around my room to break the spell of anxiety and nausea the men (and I) were experiencing.
5) Setting (5 stars) – If you want to feel—not intellectually understand but feel—the misery, the solitude, the tension, the mud, the heat, the exhaustion of war, then crack open this book.
6) Overall (4 stars) – This was a tough one. There is so much in this book that’s great—the writing, the setting—but in the end I just wish there was a deeper message, a little more culmination of macro plot, a little more depth of intelligence or morality in the characters, that I can’t give it a 5. But I can certainly give it a 4 and recommend it, which I will.