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New International, September 1948


Charles Stewart

No Glory, No Glamor


From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 7, September 1948, p. 222.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Naked and the Dead
by Norman Mailer
Rinehart, NY 1948, 721 pp., $4.00.

Maybe this is the war novel of the Second World War – it has the rare combination of art and authenticity which bids fair to make it that. The critics have all been compelled to recognize the indisputable talent of the author, but there has been a certain amount of shuddering at the “crude” honesty of the portrayals. Perhaps the book is on the best-seller list because it has attracted the lascivious and morbid horde in addition to the general reader, like the Kinsey report; hut its artistry, its uncommonly faithful recording of war’s filth, and its lack of jingoist distortion make it a welcome success.

The author is a young intellectual, product of the Brooklyn shuns, wide travel, odd jobs, and Harvard. The novel itself centers around the activity of a platoon in the invasion of the jungle island of Anopopei. The arena of operations is divided into three levels: the bare military aspects on a mass strategic scale; the activities and feeling of the GIs in the platoon; the desires, life and conversation of the officer corps. Mailer shows amazing intimacy with all these aspects.

Mailer’s work has its antecedents: Farrell’s faithfulness of idiom, though Mailer’s language use does not lose its freshness and avoids tedious repetition; Dos Passos’s techniques in USA and his biographical flashbacks, though Mailer’s are more real, more personal, less artificial. In these flashbacks Mailer undertook a staggering job – to integrate the pre-war life from childhood to maturity of a score of personalities – but he has carried it off with authenticity, making their actions and thoughts the natural extensions of their civilian lives.

There is Minetta, product of New York’s Little Italy slums, the pathetic malingerer trying to escape the war. Martinez, Mexican outcast from San Antonio, to whom the army is a refuge because he has become a sergeant. Gallagher, the Boston Irish Catholic resentful of Beacon Hill and taking it out on the Jews. Polack, the conniver from stockyard Chicago. Croft, the unscrupulous sadistic topkick from the cow country. Wilson, the poor white from the deep South. Roth, the Jew who disavowed his Jewishness only to have it thrust upon him by the platoon anti-Semites. Goldstein, who accepts the burden of discrimination but whose actions under fire undermine the bigotry of some of his comrades. Lieutenant Hearn, educated son of a nouveau-riche midwestern capitalist, who rejects the sordidness of his father’s business and wanders a confused searching soul in the world of the intellectual left. General Cummings, West Point career man, whose narrow intellectual acquaintance serves as a bridge from the strategy of war to the philosophy of fascism. Every veteran has seen some of these characters; perhaps that is the key to the book’s popularity.

General Cummings, to whom men and matériel are so many pawns on a chessboard, delights in degrading the one intellectual in the officer corps, Hearn, his aide. After a particularly humiliating experience, Hearn is transferred to the leadership of the platoon in an impossible mission to scout the enemy’s rear.

The terrible trek of this platoon, through the fetid jungle, the entangling Kunai grass and the treacherous mountain ridges of Anaka, is a gripping story of bitter struggle, heroic cooperation and tremendous hatred of war which strips the characters naked of their pretensions, dreams and ideals, debases them to the near animal level.

The GIs hate and distrust the officers and their privileges, as well as the “brown-nosers” in their own ranks. Mailer’s job in describing the molecular disintegration of an intellectual’s character who must act the role of an officer is really superb.

It is mainly through Hearn that the author sometimes expresses more general views:

“With all its contradictions, I suppose there’s an objective right on our side. That is, in Europe. Over here as far as I am concerned, it’s the imperialism tossup. Either we louse up Asia or Japan does.” – “There’s an osmosis in war, call it what you will, but the victors always tend to assume the trappings of the lower. We might easily go fascist after we win.”

There is evidence of some contact with progressive ideas, and Mailer’s development may be more hopeful than Celine’s. Celine also ripped off the scabs of the festering sores of imperialism, only to gravitate toward the politics of despair and fascism. Where Mailer goes is yet to be seen.

In spite of the fanfare, the best-seller figures, and all that sometimes stamp a literary product as suspect, The Naked and the Dead deserves to be widely read as a literary document of the war.

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