Banned Book Club: The Naked and the Dead

Title: The Naked and the Dead

Published: 1948

Author: Norman Mailer

Challenge status: Pulitzer prize-winning author Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is #80 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #37 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: In 1949, the book was banned in Canada and Australia – ostensibly for language, though Mailer was also mocked for his use of the word “fug” as a replacement for the more typical expletive. In Canada the book was banned by the Minister of National Revenue, who thought the book was “disgusting” (he hadn’t read it).

First line: ”Nobody could sleep.”


The book is impressive and imposing even quietly at rest, given it’s heft (721 pages). Mailer wrote the book, considered one of the best novelistic account of WWII, after a two-year term deployed in the Philippines. Mailer was only 25 when he wrote the book, which became immensely popular, though with mixed reviews as to the full quality of the book. Gore Vidal skewered it, and Mailer himself sounded a bit apologetic in his introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition (published before he passed away in 2007).

Regardless – the book weaves together a chorus of voices into a story about a platoon of American soldiers who are engaged in battle versus the Japanese for possession of the island of Anopopei. I understand now where Tom Clancy’s style might have emerged. Like Catch-22, the story takes form bouncing from point-of-view to point-of-view, and also makes timeline switches. The main story is told sequentially, from the evening before their first landing on the island, all the way through to a post-campaign wrap-up. Woven in are flashbacks, by character, to their lives before they had joined the Army, to provide context and depth.

They were dopes. And he was alone, a wise man without a skin. – Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

I had some difficulties with the pacing of the book, though I acknowledge it was probably done on purpose. I had to fight my way through the first few hundred pages, because the details were so full of minutiae and monotony. But of course the reader is meant to sympathize with the soldiers who were similarly stuck like Sisyphus, with no clear progress markers or end in sight. Also, though I know that Armies march on their stomachs and need to do whatever it takes to protect their feet (thanks, Hemingway), there sure were a lot of gory details shared with the reader.

The heart could be killed and the body still live. – Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

What I admire most about the book and will remember, is what a matter-of-fact account it presents. It is not brilliant satire in the style of Slaughterhouse Five or Catch-22; nor is it the cold, dissolute-hero romance of A Farewell to Arms. Mailer tries to give each of his characters depth and imperfections. Vidal may have sneered at the easy caricatures Mailer employed (the cornball hick, the paranoid, the bigot, the hustler, the hero, the big guy, the little guy, the uptight guy, the over-confident intellectual, the bully, the rube…) – and yes I agree “the time machine” is a convenient device, versus something more clever and artistic, but it’s still employed to create an effective pastiche.

The Goldstein, men were friends or they weren’t friends; he could not comprehend any variations or disloyalties. He was unhappy because he felt continually betrayed. – Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

I appreciated that though-out  the book- Mailer gave combat it’s due, but the smaller gestures and actions ended up being the most meaningful, made the characters more human, best showcased their courage (carrying Wilson). And vice versa: small actions also were the most indicative of cowardice, cruelty, and weakness (sins of omission, shenanigans with cigarette butts and power struggles). Mailer seems to acknowledge the architecture of a modern army, as imposing and inorganic as a smog covered city skyline, but also point us to little moments of hope, always popping up in unexpected and otherwise inhospitable conditions, like dandelions emerging from cracks in the sidewalk.

What do you think?

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