THE NAKED AND THE DEAD. By Norman Mailer.
Rinehart and Company. $4.
ALTHOUGH the trade for three years now has been rejecting war books, it has not rejected this one. "The Naked and the Dead" is very definitely a war book. War as seen in Norman Mailer's pages makes a brutal commotion in the reader's mind, and the book itself is intense with hate and uncompromising in its development of its facts. There is entertainment here, but not on the belly-laugh level, not on the "Mr. Roberts" level. The entertainment in "The Naked and the Dead" consists of poetic emotion and intellectual concepts of the life of humanity presented in parable and symbol. That kind of stuff never rubbed two dimes together in any author's pocket, yet in the first month of its publication the sale of "The Naked and the Dead" averaged 8,000 copies a week. If it is not yet certain of becoming the darling of the bookstores, it is certain of being the season's only significant novel to have a large sale.
On the surface it may seem that a trend in the national emotion has been reversed. But perhaps the event of this book's success is less dramatic than that. There is an enormous hunger in all our minds for further knowledge of the war we have just endured. The war is down in our unconscious now and burrowing there and pressing its great shapeless weight deep into us. It is unmanageable, except by knowledge. The war books the public has passed listlessly by have been those which have not extended its knowledge but have merely added detail or color or depth or intensity of emotion to the picture it already had. "The Naked and the Dead" extends our knowledge.
Although the book is a novel and its author is a fine story-teller, the most powerful talents displayed here are those of the journalist. The story is reported. It is not so much a reading of life as a description in depth of an event in life. Mr. Mailer begins his story where the popular war correspondents of yesterday working over the same ground began theirs--on a troop ship steaming in for a landing on a Pacific island. The story then advances, as the news stories did, in an assault boat, gains the beach, and spreads inland.
Going inland, Mr. Mailer in his working habits walks the path followed by Ernie Pyle, John Hersey, and quite a few others, your reviewer included. He attaches himself to a small unit and reports its activities, hoping in this way to get the whole story--the big picture and the detail of it. Mr. Mailer's unit is an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon working out of division headquarters. Such outfits always were the target for the war correspondent rooting around in this field. By following them he got a campaign on the staff and the working-stiff level. On the front one couldn't see the war for the people in it, and back at headquarters one couldn't see the people for the war they were in, but an I. and R. platoon was involved in both, in the war and its people. Mr. Mailer sticks to his platoon and headquarters and achieves a full, accurate, and broad picture of exactly what a typical campaign for a Pacific island was like.
The extension Mr. Mailer creates over the journalists who preceded him in this field and whose work is now of interest only to antiquarians and specialists consists fundamentally, I think, of an attitude. I believe that neither his gifts nor the tremendous labor he put into his book would have availed him in winning popular gratitude had he not also offered this new, more knowledgeable attitude toward the events of that day.
Like Mr. Mailer, the popular war correspondents were reporting to their readers the echoes they found in themselves of the events they were reporting. And like Mr. Mailer, the war correspondents on the whole made heroic efforts to capture the truth of these events. But no man hears more of the truth than the echoes of it his mind conveys to him, and when a man is in battle his brain becomes a defensive weapon in his head. However he grapples with it, it has a will of its own on such occasions and provides him, not with truth, but with the echoes of it which will enable him to survive. Thus what correspondents of the day produced while breaking the trail which Mr. Mailer follows was a description that was accurate on its surface but false--or at least only temporarily true--internally.
The public was quite content with this at the time. It would have rejected the book that did more than this or less. For we were all in the same boat during the war. Whether at home or on the battlefield, our minds were one great cry for survival. Now readers find themselves bored by the war books that once moved them profoundly; they read Mr. Mailer because in his mind as in theirs the cry has changed, and he can tell the story more accurately than it was told before.
As a war novelist, Mr. Mailer does one thing better than any American has ever done it. He reports on officer's country and enlisted men's country with equal accuracy. His people are Mexicans and Jews, Southerners, Westerners, and Easterners, urban and rural, liberals and Christian Fronters. He has poetry in him and ideas, as well as a remarkable gift for story-telling. We are lucky, I think, that we have a writer of such quality to satisfy our hunger for more knowledge about the war.