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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Naked and the Dead

Naked and the Dead
by Norman Mailer
(4 stars)

Or maybe it is your grandpa's war story; I wouldn't know because my grandpa was in the navy. Anyway, those looking for a rollicking action adventure about WWII in the Pacific had better look elsewhere. It's not a John Wayne movie or even "Saving Private Ryan." This is a psychological study of men grappling with the elements and themselves in a hellish environment. (Substitute the jungle for sand dunes and tropical humidity for 130-degree heat and Japanese soldiers for Arab terrorists and it would fit perfectly into modern times.)

This is a fictional account of the taking of an island in the Pacific by American forces. The story focuses primarily on a recon platoon lead by the abusive tyrant Sergeant Croft. There are about a dozen men in the platoon at the beginning including the Mexican sergeant Martinez, the former hobo Red, the Jew trying to fit in Goldstein, the intellectual Jew/platoon runt Roth, a couple good ol' boys Wilson and Ridges, gangster wanna-be Polack, brownnoser corporal Stanley, and seemingly All-American boy Brown. There's also General Cummings and his surly Ivy League aide Hearn, who have a very conflicted and adversarial relationship.

This relationship ends with Hearn being assigned to the recon platoon for a quixotic mission to explore behind the Japanese lines. This patrol leads to three men dying, two quickly and one very slowly.

But again this isn't a book about the war. There's really only one real battle and a couple of skirmishes. The real war for the soldiers is with the jungle and themselves--physically and mentally. A lot of the book details the platoon's fatigue as they tramp through the jungle or work on constructing a road to resupply the front.

None of these guys come off as your stereotypical characters from a war movie and Mailer's greatest strength is delving beneath the tough guy surfaces to show the fragile individuals underneath. Several sections of the book are referred to as the "time machine" and detail the platoon members before they went to war. None of them are heroes, but just ordinary guys who don't care about causes and flags, only about getting back home to their families and friends.

There's no glory to be had anywhere in this very long, very detailed narrative. If you're looking for action and excitement, look elsewhere--maybe ask your grandpa to tell one of his stories. If you want a realistic portrait of war, then look no further.

That is all.

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