The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer [A Review]

On the Japanese-held Pacific island of Anopopei, during the Second World War, American troops are about to launch their invasion. It all goes according to General Cummings’ careful plan and the Americans not only take the peninsula that protrudes from the island and its airfield quickly, but navigate the difficult turn onto the mainland and towards the line where the Japanese are entrenched. They even manage to withstand a brutal Japanese counterattack. From here though, progress slows down. Deprived of additional support from the air or the sea, Cummings is forced to be cautious and weeks are spent building up supplies, cutting roads through thick jungle and planning the next assault.

The Naked and the Dead tells the story of this campaign through the experiences of one recon platoon of soldiers. The platoon is led by Sergeant Croft – the best and the meanest staff-sergeant around – whose leadership is grudgingly accepted by his men. Croft is a hard taskmaster but has earned their respect through his determination and bravery. But he also has a dark side; he is a hateful man with a psychopathic streak.

After experiencing the tortuous anticipation aboard a troop transport ship, the initial beach invasion and even having to withstand the Japanese counter attack; the platoon has settled into the arduous routine of manual labour awaiting the next assault. It is an experience that has quickly become repetitive for the veterans in the platoon in the island-to-island war in the Pacific. Some of the men carry ongoing physical complaints, but army doctors, jaded by treating far bigger wounds and wary of soldiers faking and self-harming to get out of combat, have no sympathy for their issues.

The narrative of the experiences of Croft’s platoon is told alongside an insight into the relationship between General Cummings and his aide Lieutenant Hearn. The two men have frank philosophical discussions, often over a late-night game of chess. The General considers Hearn an intellectual equal with whom he could expound his theories. For example, early in the novel, Hearn is miffed that the General gave the officers far more meat for their meals than the enlisted men, which the General explains:

“We have the highest standard of living in the world and, as one would expect, the worst individual fighting soldiers of any big power. […] They’re comparatively wealthy, they’re spoiled, […] they have an exaggerated idea of the rights due to themselves as individuals and no idea at all of the rights due to others. It’s the reverse of the peasant, and I’ll tell you right now it’s the peasant that makes the soldier.”

“So what you’ve got to do is break them down,” Hearn said.

“Exactly. Break them down. Every time an enlisted man sees an officer get an extra privilege, it breaks him down a little more.”

“I don’t see that. It seems to me they’d hate you more”.

“They do. But they also fear us more. I don’t care what kind of man you give me, if I have him long enough I’ll make him afraid. […] The Army functions best when you’re frightened of the man above you, and contemptuous of your subordinates”.

It is from one of Cummings’ theories that the novel gets its name; of naked power and the dead left in its wake.

As weeks go by with little combat or progress, General Cummings begins feeling pressure from above to quickly defeat the Japanese and complete the takeover of the island. But denied support from the navy or the air he must come up with other tactics with the resources he does have. At the same time, his relationship with Lieutenant Hearn has broken down and Hearn is requesting a transfer. It occurs to the General, that a recon mission, over the unoccupied southern half of the island and through a pass in the mountains into the rear of the Japanese position may prove propitious. Croft’s recon platoon enjoys a strong reputation, but the General would still prefer a more senior officer in charge and he wonders if this mission may be a good way to occupy and dispose of Hearn and achieve a useful manoeuvre.

Hearn, though not anxious for combat, is relieved to be in the company of soldiers and not officers. But he does appreciate that he is intruding on a unit that have already been through a lot together, under a sergeant now used to command, and they will be reluctant to take orders from a stranger. The danger of their mission, the physicality of traversing dense jungle and mountain passes, with men nearing their emotional and physical limits, means he already has plenty to contend with. Croft, though, revels in the mission’s arduousness and danger and is more willing to risk the lives of the men.

The Naked and the Dead was Norman Mailer’s first novel and is partly based on his own experiences in the Philippines during the Second World War. A bestseller, it was published in 1948; a time when America was eagerly anticipating the arrival of novels depicting the war. The novel is very frank and it was somewhat controversial on release. I suspect this was partly due to the frequent use of profanity. The word “fuck” was famously replaced with “fug” in the novel. The frank description of sexual relations, much of it pre-marital and adulterous, probably made some uncomfortable at the time as well.

For the modern reader, these aspects are barely provocative. What is more noticeable is the misogynistic and anti-Semitic attitudes of the characters and what this may say about the American man of the era. One can’t help but feel a sense of irony at the casual anti-Semitism given the forces the American’s were fighting at the time. While, understandably, the men dwell frequently on their wives and girlfriends back home; they are also anxious and paranoid about their fidelity and frequently display the double-standards and sexism of the time. I wonder if the misogyny and sexism were issues for readers in 1948 though.

The novel has some pacing issues. A soldier’s life is one consisting of long spells of boredom interspersed with short periods of terror. Boredom was certainly the main theme of Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir Jarhead. The Naked and the Dead is not particularly action-packed, nor would it necessarily be realistic if it were. Mailer originally wanted the novel to consist mostly of the dangerous mission of the platoon, but, in the interest of creating greater context, expanded events leading up to the mission to the extent that it has a large share in the novel.

What it may lack in action it makes up for in genuine moments of great tension on the front line. The exhaustion of the men’s labours and the despair of the wounded is also very well achieved. There are also some haunting scenes of burned out tanks, destroyed trenches and bloated corpses. Mailer does abandon realism in one regard – by making this one platoon of Croft’s have such a significant role, when in reality, they would have been rotated. Consideration for such short platoon duration, though, would not have lent itself to the sort of character development Mailer clearly wants to achieve.

In The Naked and the Dead, Mailer provides the backstories for his characters via ‘Time Machines’ – separate passages of backstory given in the back half of chapters. These backstories were the most interesting parts of the novel for me. Through them, the reader can appreciate the slice of America Mailer has assembled in this platoon. Many of the men come from poverty; from small towns in the South or urban immigrant communities. They’ve survived alcoholic fathers, prejudice, unemployment, found themselves involved in gangs or racist politics and some are clearly escaping their former lives. There is a danger, though, that some of these sketches may verge on the cliché.

One of the most fascinating character backstory’s is that of Red. Red comes from a small, enclosed mining town. The company that owns and operates the mine pretty much seems to own the whole town including the accommodation, stores, bars and the bank. Residents of the town are therefore the company’s employees, tenants, customers and debtors. The nature of coal-mining means a low life expectancy of course and it is not uncommon for miners to die and leave their young family in debt to the company. Men like Red found themselves working in the mines from their mid-teens to pay off their dead father’s debt and support their family. Escaping from such a life is not easy. For Red, who realised he could no longer live that way, it meant abandoning his family and living as a homeless drifter before finding himself in the army.

Red is one of the men on the platoon who has seen the most combat. Increasingly jaded and introspective; his thoughts are some of the best passages.

Even if we do get back we’ll get a fuggin. What did it matter if they ever got out of the Army? It would be the same thing on the outside. Nothing ever turns out the way you want it. And yet they weren’t really tough, they still believed it would all be perfect in the end, they separated all the golden grains in the sand and looked at them – with a magnifying glass. He did it himself, and he had nothing to look forward to but a succession of barren little towns and rented rooms, of nights spent listening to men talk in bar-rooms. What would there be outside of a whore and some tremors in his groin?

The problem with Mailer’s Time Machine technique is that it takes too long. They persist throughout this over-700 page novel. So, deep in the novel, you will still be reading backstory for characters who have now been with you for quite a while. This is particularly problematic in one respect.

As mentioned above, in the early parts of the novel, considerable narrative is devoted to Cummings and his aide Hearn. Cummings, we learn is a closet gay man who was encouraged to be himself by his mother but was opposed with violence by his father. An army career gave him the opportunity to exercise his self-denial through discipline, perfectionism and ambition. Hearn is a man with communist sympathies who was never accepted by those who share his views. As the son of a wealthy industrialist, he would never be fully trusted, nor believed, as having empathy for the working class man. His joining the army, before Pearl Harbour, was something for a two-fingered salute to both his capitalist father and to the socialists who would never accept him.

As you can imagine, these backstories add considerable context to the discussions Cummings and Hearn have. Unfortunately, by the time we learn of their histories, their relationship in the novel is at an end and the reader has to try and reinterpret their conversations in hindsight with this new information. The reader has the same problem with other backstories given in the latter half of the novel; wondering how everything up to that point may have to be reinterpreted.

On a side note, I think I am through with reading author’s early works. I had thought that it might be interesting to gain a sense of their oeuvre, an appreciation of their evolution as writers. But two of the worst books I have read are the first novels of Orhan Pamuk (The White Castle) and Kazuo Ishiguro (A Pale View of Hills). The reason I had read them at all was for the above reasons as Pamuk would go on to win a Nobel Prize and Ishiguro would go on to win one Booker Prize and be a close contender for more. I am now more inclined to leave such considerations for academics and hardcore fans. Life is not only too short for bad books but, unless you are a keen fan, also for the lesser works of otherwise fine writers.

It may be harsh to include The Naked and the Dead with The White Castle and A Pale View of Hills as I found it much better, but the principle is still true. For a writer who would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes and, along with others of his generation, help found a new genre in the non-fiction novel; The Naked and the Dead remained Mailer’s only bestseller. As it is in any artistic form, a work that appeals to the discerning rarely achieves popularity with the majority, and vice versa. Though I have not read his other books, I would hope The Naked and the Dead is not indicative of them given the critical acclaim they have received. This edition includes the introduction Norman Mailer wrote for the 30th anniversary edition. In it, Mailer asks the reader to see this novel was the work of an amateur, written in just fifteen months when he was only twenty-three years old. He points out that it suffers from a lack of subtlety and restraint. There is also an overuse of descriptive language and obscure adjectives. Despite this, the novel was included on Modern Library’s Board’s List of Top 100 Novels of the 20th century.

You get a better appreciation of the issues created by Mailer’s decisions to lengthen the novel and provide backstories deep into the novel when you reach the end. They have made the novel a slow-burner when it needn’t be. The last 100 pages or so are certainly the best as the various character dynamics, physical challenges and internal struggles come to a head. If the novel was written by a current writer it would follow a very different structure – the reader would be dropped into the mission from the first page, the story up to the beginning of the mission would be provided by flashbacks and the character backstories would be seamlessly assumed into the narrative. All done in anticipation of a film adaptation. Alternatively, another reader might argue that what the novel delivers in the final parts was only possible because of all of the earlier work. Perhaps they are right. But I remember what Remarque achieved in a small book called All Quiet on the Western Front and wonder if The Naked and the Dead might have done more with less.


  1. I’ve had this book on my TBR shelf for some time but not yet tackled due to the lenght. I agree with your point re All Quiet on the Western Front and certainly felt the same when comparing that or Slaughterhouse 5 to Catch 22, for example! Bronte

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had half a mind to read this on the basis it’s considered a modern day classic but having read your review, i’ve changed my mind. I don’t have patience for lengthy novels where it feels the text is simply being padded out

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think the expansion beyond his original story plan was overdone. It is a shame because it spoils what he does well by being too long and too linear. Thanks for your comment!


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