Friday, March 4, 2011

The Terrified and the Bored

“They were still on the treadmill; the misery, the ennui, the dislocated horror…. Things would happen and time would pass, but there was no hope, no anticipation. There would be nothing but the deep cloudy dejection that overcast everything.”

--Norman Mailer

An author, like any artist mindful of his or her spread in the busy, kinetic, attention-free pop galaxy, must consider the brand as well as the art if hopeful for a multiple book contract, which is altogether negotiable depending on the number of readers willing to put down money for good storytelling. While a few like J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon built their reputations with reticence, some like Norman Mailer bet on bombast, creating a trademark presence but with it the baggage of distraction. Before I’d read any of Mailer’s books, I knew him as the writer who stabbed his wife the night he threw a party announcing his presidential candidacy in 1960. That and he was the guy who wrote the first How To book for hipsters, The White Negro. But for all the talk shows and celebrity gladhanding, Mailer wrote better than anyone. Many detested him for his theatrical pretensions, but very few for his literary verve.

The Late Great Norman Mailer

Mailer made a name for himself by capturing the zeitgeist before anyone else, whether it be beatniks, hippies, or mass murderers. Writers write what they know and Mailer had survived the great drama of the Second World War with enough notes for a book, publishing The Naked and the Dead in 1948 when he was just twenty-five years old, catapulting him into the high chair of literary enfants terribles. Ostensibly, it is a book about a reconnaissance platoon, a motley collection of soldiers ordered by military brass to survey the Japanese behind their position on the invented island of Anopopei during the Filipino campaign, but The Naked and the Dead is very much a modern American novel, which means it is a subversive criticism on American social life, economic opportunity, and an illusory freedom of choice.

Very few of the soldiers in the platoon are there by virtue of patriotism or sense of duty. They’re there because war was happening and there was not much else going on for them in the economic maelstrom of the 1930s and early 1940s. They are true grunts: outcasts, farmhands, street punks, and failed entrepreneurs stinking of bad luck. As General Cummings, a philosophical mouthpiece for Mailer, explains, “The individual soldier in that army is a more effective soldier the poorer his standard of living has been in the past.” The Army, first in line as cannon fodder, would not work so well as a fighting unit had it educated men who might second guess suicidal mission objectives.

In spite of its grandiose subject and prolix verbosity (it’s more than 700 pages long) not much happens in the novel. The platoon participates in the landing mission where there is little resistance. There are some small, deadly skirmishes where the army is digging into the Japanese line. The soldiers make and break camp as necessity sees fit. And the recon unit goes on its difficult mission. The major battle is not described except in dispatches to the command center. The reality has little to do with the PR campaign that had fueled recruitment drives and positioned every private a starring role in his own personal movie: “He had always imagined combat as exciting, with no misery and no physical exertion. He dreamed of himself charging across a field in the face of many machine-guns; but in the dream there was no stitch in his side from running too far while bearing too much weight.”

Island Hopping GI Joe Style

Major episodes describe the futility in keeping your tent secure in a typhoon; of loathing yet another rations can of ham and eggs; of fighting sleep deprivation on guard duty; of fantasizing over the “million dollar wound,” some injury that wouldn’t cripple them but was bad enough it would warrant a ticket home, thus becoming a veteran, a survivor, and guaranteeing the opportunity to tell young women, “I was there…”

Daydreaming about what they’ll do after the war does little to make their labor bearable: most duties are makeshift and disposable, the temporary conditions of camp living producing no sustenance. The tedium is only more tolerable than the logistical errands necessary to reorder military positions in constant flux. Endurance is taxed and tolled mercilessly, so much that a man’s humanity is crushed by the dead weight of his task as when the platoon is ordered to move heavy artillery guns through muddy paths to a new position on the front: “By the time an hour passed, nothing existed for them but the slender cannon they had to get down the track. The sweat drenched their clothing and filled their eyes, blinding them. They grappled and blundered and swore, advanced the little guns a few feet at a time with no consciousness any longer of what they were doing.”

an American platoon

And who are these guys suffering for the sake of their country anyway? There is no central hero in The Naked and the Dead— at least, there is no one with outstanding moral qualities— instead they are neither good nor bad, but merely human, reacting to the violence, tedium and proximity to death in a myriad of ways. Wilson, a philandering Southerner wants to get drunk and swap sex stories; Red is a hard-luck cynic mistrustful of authority; Goldstein is a New York Jew who wants to be liked and is easily hurt by discrimination; Gallagher is a high-strung Commie-baiter; Martinez is an excellent scout brave in spite of his fears; Hearn is a college grad from a good Midwestern family dabbling in socialism, assigned to lead the platoon on their recon mission after a falling out as General Cummings’ secretary; only Croft, a tough bastard from Texas, truly fits the ideal soldier, a man with a “crude, unformed vision in his soul… rarely conscious of it.”

In the 50th anniversary addition of the novel, looking back Mailer calls his first calling card opus the work of an “amateur.” If there are any flaws in The Naked and the Dead it may only be Mailer’s conceit of using a Freudian device he calls THE TIME MACHINE, in which in a very close third person (adapting local vernacular whether Boston or Brooklyn street, Georgia hillbilly, or Texan Mexlish) Mailer explains characters’ backstories. Not that they are superfluous— they are all piece and parcel of Mailer’s most persuasive point: that America is an unequal society and that these men, should they survive, had very little to look forward to coming home short of some good home cooking and a few rowdy nights of casual sex: “…it did not matter because both girls would look the same in thirty years and Wyman would never amount to very much. He saw a future vista of Wyman’s life, and rebelled. He wanted to be able to tell Wyman something more comforting than the fact it didn’t matter. But he could think of nothing.”

Recently, I was discussing with my family the famous essay by economists Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt and their controversial assertion that the great drop in crime over the last twenty years has its origins in Roe vs. Wade. They contend that legalized abortion has resulted in a million fewer unwanted babies a year, arguing this as a causal effect since statistically most criminals come from single parent, low income backgrounds. Something the economists never touched on and is worth bringing up is the role of America’s large standing army.

It’s a long time passed since the Army has relied on Uncle Sam posters for recruitment. Nowadays, the big draw for those ambitious to leave the ghetto are things not generally associated with masculine glory: steady pay, technical skills, health insurance, and government pension. Even in garish TV recruitment commercials in which soldiers and marines fight CGI monsters, some of these essentials do not go unmentioned. Nowadays glory is the fringe benefit; security is where it’s at, even if it means risking deployment in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq— for a number of men this trumps the quiet desperation that afflicts so many civilians. As Mailer’s General Cummings puts it perfectly, “The natural role of twentieth century man is anxiety,” especially true in a nation whose safety net is worn through and breaking.

Cummings again: “The Army functions best when you’re frightened of the man above you, and contemptuous of your subordinates.” But Mailer might as well be talking about his vision of America, the scramble for earnings, the problem of love and marriage in circumstances of poverty, the hypocrisy of the American Dream being realized for so few. I was shocked to discover The Naked and the Dead on Bill O’ Reilly’s Top Ten list. Had he completely missed Norman Mailer’s essential idea?

Today, The Naked and the Dead is hardly known for its brutal realism and tough stance on American inequity. If anything, it is notorious for the censorship of it’s language, as in “Ain’t none of your fuggin’ business,” or “The fug you say!,” an unintentionally humorous tact Mailer’s editors employed as to not offend Middle America’s sensitive moral palate. Tuli Kupferberg called his marvelous freak-rock band, The Fugs, and the actress, Tallulah Bankhead, apocryphally said to Norman Mailer upon meeting him, “Oh, you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell…” It’s a good story but the book deserves more than an anecdotal cocktail throwaway— it is essential reading for anyone interested in the American’s precarious existence.

The men of the recon patrol lead a Sysyphean existence. So little of their exhausting work produces real meaning or tangible results. Even that most vital human instinct most of us in our technocentric lives never have to exercise, that of survival, is dulled from arduous exercise so that a bullet in the head would mean a welcome respite from this trial called life. The rare moments they have in combat, the hero's stance is not charging the field but merely holding one's ground and not running. Winning the war then becomes the accumulation of small victories. You might not like the soldiers in recon but you know them and you feel for them because at the extreme other of the killing in war is that elusive quality called human empathy. A corpse is not just a corpse; he is a storehouse of love, life and stories that have ceased to exist. Even Mailer’s battle-hardened, sarcastic grunt, Red, is alive to this:

“Very deep inside himself he was thinking that this was a man who had once wanted things, and the thought of his own death was always a little unbelievable to him. The man had had a childhood, a youth, and a young manhood, and there had been dreams and memories.”


  1. "A corpse is not just a corpse; he is a storehouse of love, life and stories that have ceased to exist."

    He is also your enemy. He is also you.

    Great point of view of a great novel at a time when it's looking like we need it most.

  2. All those years ago, I found the opening scene, tough going. From then on, an amazing book. I thought 'Time Machine' was brilliant. By 24 year old Mailer.