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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“Goldstein, you'd be a pretty good boy if you wasn't so chicken.”

The nice thing about reading a gigantic book is that if you have promised to write reviews in a blog of every book you read, then you kind of have an excuse not to blog for a while. Then you finish said giant book and you find yourself in a situation where now you have to write about a book that's so big that you kind of don't remember how it started. This is a universal complaint, I know. I think it's pretty much existed forever.

The book, by the way, is Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. And listen, it's a heck of a book. It's a novel, first of all. And it's about World War II. Specifically, it's mostly about a recon platoon on the fictional island of Anopopei. There's another plot about a strained relationship between a General and a Lieutenant, and without giving too much away I'll say that the plots combine. Also, it's about how filthy guys can be when they're left out in the jungle for long enough, and I mean this in both their speech and their general cleanliness.

Mailer started it when he was 23, and wrote it in 15 months, so I already hate him. That the book is 718 pages and considered still to be one of the best books on war in American history, and then I'm like. On the back of the copy I have, the Providence Journal called it "The most important American novel since Moby-Dick." I know it doesn't do any good to compare yourself to others, but at 23 I'm pretty sure I was finishing Final Fantasy X. And even that I gave up because the final boss was too hard.

Mailer's obviously extraordinarily mature for his age at the time of writing, and his writing is, for the most part, phenomenal. Each character, throughout the book, gets his own sidebar where we find out what happened before the war to make them how they are today. A lot of the folks in the story are a little, uh, unlikeable, so this glimpse helps humanize them a bit. That being said, each of their stories ends up being just about the same.

Apparently 23-year-old Mailer had already decided that there wasn't a marriage that he could make it past the honeymoon, for example. He draws the experiences of the characters in the book from his own experience in the Philippines during the war, so I assume there's some truth to the stories each soldier experiences, but I also think he might have come back just a little jaded after hearing the older soldiers constantly harping on their old ladies.

I think when I imagined the war when I was younger, it was very much influenced by Saving Private Ryan, which is to say harrowing and violent and noisy. But since we knew so clearly who the bad guy was, it was also heroic. One of those things where even though the job is tough, and you're not sure you can do it, you know that you have to do it, because it's the right thing to do.

What The Naked and the Dead captured, though, was the boredom and uncertainty and just ugly slogging through mud that I'm also sure there was in that war, and in all other wars we've fought. A lot of the time the troops on the ground aren't exactly sure every single day that what they're doing is worth it. As I get older, I realize that even when the war is perhaps just, it's probably being run poorly sometimes, and soldiers who die often don't die for any good reason other than someone higher up trying to impress their own superiors, or they read a map wrong.

In summary, I learned a lot from it, both about writing and about war. My grandpa was a marine in the Pacific. While reading this book, I spent a bit of time with him at a family party, and tried to imagine the now 80-something year old man as a soldier in the jungle during his late teens and early twenties. Then, while helping my mom compile old 8mm family movies of him as a young dad, I saw a lot of my own dad in him, and even myself. I wondered what quiet family life feels like to someone who spent years in the jungle, and I hope to ask him very soon.