Norman Mailer, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948) – For most of my life thinking about literature, I thought of Norman Mailer as one of the great overrated buffoons of American letters. I thought this mostly on the strength of his nonfiction. This included his pseudo-gonzo reportage from riots in Miami and Chicago but the text of his I saw the most was “The White Negro.” People invariably cite this essay in histories of American culture and thought in the late twentieth century, and in the culture-drowned internet discussions about race of twenty-first century- Norman, the archdevil of white appropriation of black culture, along with Moynihan, the devil of pathologization of the black family.
Well, “The White Negro” might be needlessly flogged but it is also, to borrow a usage I dislike, deeply “cringe.” It is genuinely a bad piece of work, and his reportage sucks hard, too, especially when Hunter S. Thompson was around, showing what was possible in the same vein. Mailer’s performance of self after the sixties is impossible to take seriously: bloviating, macho, homophobic, Hemingway without the pretense of elegance. And he stabbed his wife (and pretty much the whole of New York literati at the time, including at least one contemporary progressive saint figure in the person of James Baldwin, signed statements to let him off). That’s the Mailer who serves as midcentury New York literary foil to Gore Vidal, in the minds of internet people with some stake in being literate, little time or interest in reading long old books, and an awareness that Mailer was the straight buffoon and Vidal was the queer guy with the bon mots and the fine taste in enemies.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Mailer’s first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” written a full decade and a half before he punched Vidal, stabbed his wife, or ran for office. What I got is actually pretty stellar, and even more impressive considering that this was a first novel from a twenty-five year old just coming back from a grueling wartime experience. It seems like a shame to me, now, that Mailer’s later reputation in many ways overshadows his first book, though Mailer himself can take most of the blame for that.
“The Naked and the Dead” tells the story of an American campaign to take a fictional South Pacific island from the Japanese, part of the “island hopping” strategy. Most of the viewpoint characters are part of a reconnaissance platoon. The island is hot and wet, the men are mostly sweaty, horny, contentious, and when not terrified, bored. We get insight into the private lives of at least a dozen members of the platoon as well as frequent visits to the general leading the campaign and his psychological war with his aide de camp. These include “time machine” sections where we get insight into the men’s lives before the war (Gore Vidal sneered at these in his dismissal of this book, saying they were second rate Dos Passos knock offs- Vidal was wrong here, and wrong about the book as a whole, which shows he takes Ls in this game, too).
The plot isn’t complicated. The platoon lands on the island and gets shot at. The platoon hangs out on the island for a while when the campaign stalemates. The platoon gets sent on a cockamamie long-range patrol, ordered and run according to agendas that have little to do with winning the battle winds up determining their fate. Some of them survive, most of them don’t.
More than the plot, the point of the book is the situation and the characters, a study of men — gendered pronoun used intentionally, there are no women on the island (there are also apparently no indigenous people- I’m not sure whether there any islands that big that were uninhabited out there, but whatever) — in an extreme situation around other men. Ever wanted to know what was going on in the heads of all those members of those multiethnic (but no black people) squads of WWII dogfaces, before we decided that generation was too Great to have internal lives? Mailer tells us, by the expedient of throwing them all in with each other and adding numerous stressors.
You can see some of where Mailer’s gendered bullshit later in his career comes from, but in a larval form, arguably a form that could have had a very different growth. The root, in a predictable enough pattern, is in insecurity. All of the men in the platoon, and the general and everyone else, is in one way or another insecure in their masculinity. Even the sergeant who leads the platoon (it’s without a lieutenant for a while), Croft, a self-contained autochthon made of rage and competence, feels insecure, is constantly on guard from challenges to his manliness. The other characters — especially Mailer’s two Jewish characters, who, like him, live in the shadow of the “nice Jewish boy” stereotype (and of raw antisemitism) — don’t stand a chance.
So, they rub up against each other, emotionally if not physically (one way the macho buffoon Mailer of later decades shows himself here is the clear association he makes between heterosexual sex and happiness, if not necessarily wholesomeness, and homosexuality — as represented by the ruthless, mind-game-playing general — and a sinister devaluing of human life). They complain about their wives and sweethearts, and fantasize about female infidelity even as they undertake many of their own. They get in little pissing contests. Much of the action are the attempts of the men to get out of doing difficult and dangerous things, and the way the Army makes their lives worse, whether they manage to get out of the firing line or not.
As a dude who hangs out with a lot of other dudes, it all rang pretty true. The prose was good, with some pyrotechnics in places but little of the pretense Mailer with which Mailer would come to stultify us. It felt honest and immersive. I spent a long time reading this, partially because I’ve been busy (especially in my traditional novel-reading time, evenings after work), but by the end, because I was savoring it. My plan now is to read down Mailer’s oeuvre chronologically to see when he went from this guy to the guy he became. *****