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Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead

Mailer burst onto the scene with this novel, which was soon hailed as the greatest World War II novel. It’s not the greatest World War II novel (H L HumesUnderground City is) but it’s not at all bad. Funny that World War II has yet to produce a collection of novels as fine as those that came out of World War 1, probably because World War 1 was seen more as the end of an era than World War II.

The story of this novel concerns a platoon of US marines operating on the (fictitious) Japanese-occupied island of Anopopei (Mailer himself served in the Phillipines). Putting a small group of men (obviously there are no women) together in a stressful situation such as a war naturally enables a writer to look in depth at both the interaction between these men and at what really drives them. What drives Sergeant Croft – killing, body counts, winning – is clear. What drives the others – apart from the obvious aims of winning the war and surviving it – is not always clear, unless it is some unspecified desire for fair treatment for all.

What made this book so successful is that it depicts the ordinary soldier with his fears, terrors and unpleasant experiences (including foot rot and diarrhoea). For many soldiers – and Mailer’s are no different – for much of the time, the real enemy is not the guy you see at the end of your rifle barrel but the officers and the NCOs. In this case General Cummings and Sergeant Croft are contrasted with Lieutenant Hearn, who is far more liberal and therefore, by implication, a less effective soldier, for which he pays the price that Mailer exacts from him, while Cummings and Croft essentially”win”. Croft is in charge and any rebellion, such as that by Valsen, the real worker, is suppressed. An unspecified desire for fair treatment for all is always going to lose against the driven killers.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Rinehart and Co