Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Something about the mysterious little wonders of reading and books went into my experience of finally getting to the towering Norman Mailer's first towering novel. It's possible that it is the last mass market Signet paperback I will ever read—purchased new in 1975 (the date dutifully inscribed into the inside first page), for approximately $1.25, I carted it around with me everywhere I moved until I finally picked it up and read it over 25 years later. And wondered why I had taken so long to get to it. Well, that's not actually a hard question to answer (because the harder question, perhaps, is what is one to do about the towering Norman Mailer). The author in thrall to Ernest Hemingway, taking World War II more or less as novelist career opportunity, and all the way down to the "fugging" language, this seemed impenetrable every time I tried, until finally it wasn't. There's some fine storytelling here after all, convincing and vivid "War is hell" passages, a schematic cross-section of America in the soldiers of the platoon a la Blackhawk comics, forward momentum like crazy, and evidently the author more in thrall to John Dos Passos than Hemingway, a pleasant surprise. I loved it in all its pulpy juicy lunatic experimenting glory. I like the Pacific theater setting. I like the sure way it grinds along. Certainly it bears all the elements of the brand Mailer would create and build on, the self-aggrandizing wise man buffoon with such an acute eye for detail and lacerating wit, though at the time he seemed more a natural match with James Jones and James Michener, who were also making slab-o-book careers out of World War II. It's worth noting Mailer had plenty of time to burn, publishing this as something of a prodigy at the age of 25, which is truly remarkable given how self-assured and well done it is. So he had a decade to flail around some and try this and that to find his way to a man of letters career—it's those subsequent agonies as much as anything that make him so much fun still to read. In the meanwhile, he always had this very fine war novel to fall back on for literary reputation. On the "fugging" issue: Look, I know, different times, different times. But fair or not, in a weird way it makes Mailer look a bit of a moral coward. He's brave enough to want to reproduce the language of soldiers, but acquiescent to his publisher who insists on at least softening "fuck" to "fug," giving birth to one of the more annoying tics in all literature. At least it gave us the Fugs in the '60s. And Mailer did go to war to get the experience to write an important literary work, so there's that too. This is a good one.

In case it's not at the library.

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