The Naked and the Dead
By Norman Mailer
First Published: 1948
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Classic, Military, Thriller
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer is one of the best war novels ever, if you don’t mind a very realistic (some would say negative) view of warfare that exposes all the chaos, misery, and tragedy of war. In this novel, Mailer describes an American World War II campaign to gain control of a fictional island in the Pacific.
Within The Naked and the Dead, Mailer provides windows to the war through a number of participants from some of the lowest ranking solders to the commanding General. He alternates between following the activities of a reconnaissance unit and the headquarters group so that you get very different perspectives of the campaign. He also throws in flashbacks of the soldiers' lives prior to the military to gain a further understanding of their background and character.
Mailer does a masterful job of bringing you right into the middle of this campaign. He writes with a force and immediacy that really grabs your attention. The characters and events are completely real. The dialog is spot on and matches the characters’ education level and regional accents. He describes in detail the hopes, fears, and ideals of the characters.
Mailer highlights the contrast between the “classes” of the military; the officers, the noncoms, and the grunts. The general is an intellectual who doesn’t find anyone to be on his intellectual level other than a lieutenant who he makes his assistant. The lieutenant engages with the general in a series of intellectual skirmishes on war, leadership, politics, etc which is not necessarily a smart move when the general is essentially “God” on this island. Meanwhile, the reconnaissance team must deal with constant fear, ambushes, pitched battles, hardships, privations, etc.This is not a rose tinted view of how glorious war can be. It’s a very realistic look at the nature of man and the realities of war. When reading The Naked and the Dead, you’ll find yourself experiencing a very real Pacific campaign in World War II. This novel should be required reading for all adults.