(Picador USA)Part III picked up The Naked and the Dead a month ago to revive old memories of a book I had once read and could never forget. I was not convinced I wanted to labor through all 721 pages of it but...alas, it caught me. I had to give it another week out of my life.
I winced at some of the details --- descriptions, for example, of smell, sight, feel of humans, murdered in war, moldering in the mud. I wonder at the effect it must have had on the innocent-child me, the one who picked it up and read it all the way through so many years ago. Was it partially responsible for that lack of idealism that seemed to separate me from some of my college mates? Was it --- along with my Quaker schooling --- what turned me into one who would, so often, write against the violence of war, involve myself in anti-war activities with such a passion that my attempts to make people see the futility of killing others would actually disrupt my own life?
There are some parts of the book that escaped me back then. There is, I now see, no joy here at all. When the squad gets drunk, it's a sodden drunkenness --- and it leads them to the famous body-raiding trophy-seeking part of the book [see below]. The stories of work and courtship and marriage and love-making are uniformly stories of failure. Friendships are fraught at best. There is a singular glumness to it all, at least until page 702 when the squad, returning from their patrol, find out that their particular war is now over --- that the Japanese on the island suddenly capitulated while they were in the midst of their futile, awful mission. For the first time, they smile and laugh, even sing. They burst into the chorus of that old familiar war-song,
Roll me over
In the clover,
Roll me over
Lay me down
And do it again.
It's the gentlest moment in the whole book.
Mailer's vision of men and their lives and their wars is uniformly bleak. And it's not just that these soldiers are lonely agonized characters. They fight each other as vigorously as they fight the Japanese. The worlds they came from are as grim and hopeless as the world of the battlefield. In their dialogues --- from the grunt soldiers to Hearn and the General --- they create such a tension that one expects them to explode in flames.
"You have men who have been away from America for a year and a half. How can you calculate whether it's better so many to be killed and the rest get home faster, or they all stay over here, and go to pot, and have their wives cheat on them. How do you tot up something like that?"
"The answer is, I don't concern myself with that." The General ticked his beard again with his fingernail. "What's the matter, Hearn? I didn't know your were married."
"Then why all this concern about women 'cheating'? It's in their nature to do that."
Hearn grinned with a sudden relish, a little amazed at his own audacity. "What's the matter, sir, speaking from personal experience?"
Whether it is a war of words between a General and his subaltern, or two foot soldiers about to beat up on each other, the tension that drives the book is so powerful that one begins to see that these bitter interractions between individuals are just another war --- a war between peoples that could be carried on against the Japanese in the south Pacific or, as easily, between couples in the slums of Brooklyn, families in the dry farmlands of Texas, and men in bars in the hills of Montana. The only difference is that the "real" war's tension is upped by a steamy, bug-infested environment and the assumption that one could die at any moment. It serves to remind one of the words of Ignacio Silone, who said that a good novelist must be willing torture his characters unmercifully.
There are parts of The Naked and the Dead that are so ghastly that one must hurry through them or be prepared for a sleepless, nightmare-infested night. Early on, the squad gets drunk on illegal hootch, and then makes a raid on an encampment of Japanese recently killed in battle. The squad is looking for trophies (gold teeth; samari swords). I suspect that before this --- even in the writings on the equally blasphemous battles of the Marne --- there has never been a more ghoulish picture of the stink of the dead, the ghastly aftermath of a bloody battle. One finds oneself skipping over the details of stomach wounds and headless corpses.
The thought that Norman Mailer, as an unknown of twenty-four years, could produce something as rich and horribly real as this does tend to, as we used to say in the old, post-WWII days, blow your mind. It is an awful tale; but it's one told with a dry artfulness. Outside of the unremitting grimness, and the moments of philosophy --- Hearn and the General as Greek chorus, debating the "why" of war --- in our rereading of this we stumbled across another truth.
For Mailer it's been downhill ever since. He never matched this one stunning accomplishment, the one book that taught the rest of us what war was all about. Over the years, his other works have been praised to the skies, and, with Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song have even won Pulitzers. None of them, however, have been able to achieve the aching harsh artistry of this one --- a book that was written from the very depths of his own experience, back when he was so young, and so effortlessly, restlessly brilliant.--- I. W. Schwartz