The Naked and the Dead opens on the beaches of the fictitious South Pacific island, Anopopei, that has been occupied by the Japanese. We meet the central characters as they silently worry about their survival in their latest campaign and correctly assume, some will perish.
Mailer doesn’t spare us on the details of war and paints a very graphic picture of what actually happens to men in battle. We feel the sweat as it drips down a filthy face. We see the decomposing corpses. We smell the excrement in the less than adequate latrines. We slowly acclimate to the soldier’s life and hope only for survival.
Sergeant Sam Croft is a cold and ruthless leader, He is respected by those he leads as well as by those above him, yet they all recognize the incompleteness of the man. Quick to judge, Croft either has use for a man or he does not and when a man does not meet his criteria, he simply disregards him.
General Cummings is a sophisticated strategist with strong opinions on intimidation techniques for motivating soldiers. His career is reaching its climax and he is hoping to go out on a high note. He is intelligent and seeks intellectual stimulation that he can’t seem to find among his fellow officers. He hopes for such an exchange from his aid, Lieutenant Hearn, however, they seem to have only their intelligence in common and eventually become alienated, much to the detriment of the lieutenant. There were subtleties of a sexual attraction on the general’s behalf that I sensed was not a reciprocal feeling of Hearn’s.
Private Woodrow Wilson takes one in the gut and is carried out of the jungle by his platoon through rugged terrain and unpredictable weather. He is a renowned womanizer suffering from his sixth bout of syphilis. He has a wife and child awaiting him as well as another woman unaware of his marital status and is unsure where he’ll head when his time is served. In his delirium, he recalls past sexual exploits and wonders that his injury will “clean” the syphilitic pus out of him.
There were no female characters beyond the background descriptions of mothers, sisters, wives, etc. Not surprisingly, the women were either doting mothers, virginal sisters (even some becoming nuns), frigid wives or whores…sorry, but that is pretty much how they were portrayed.
I’m not quite sure if I’d want to chat with Mr. Mailer as I fear I’d find him rather intimidating. What I’ve gathered about him is not at all flattering, yet his ability to craft such a detailed account of a war he was apparently only on the periphery of, shows great literary talent. So perhaps I’d tread lightly, stroke that huge ego and allow him to lead the discussion.
What I found a tad distracting was the overabundance of characters which I confused at times. While each came with a detailed background, there were just more than I could mange to absorb. This excess inevitably lead to an overly expansive work that could stand on its own minus 200 pages.
Mailer was heavily edited and his use of the f* word was revised to fug. What the fug…well I just quickly changed it in my mind to the real deal and it flowed quite naturally.
My rating for The Naked and the Dead is an 8 out of 10.
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