Roger Kimball, one of our finest critics, has delivered a devastating dissection of Norman Mailer’s overrated career, which consisted of political posturing and juvenile behavior interspersed with the production of mediocre novels—at best. (Kimball’s critique may be found here.)
I have very little to add beyond a few thoughts on the book that launched Mailer’s career—The Naked and the Dead, written in 1948 when its author was a 25-year-old unknown. Kimball is dead right when he describes this work as “pretentious,” not particularly “well-crafted,” and lacking in narrative “momentum.” Kimball writes, “Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing.” That was certainly my reaction upon reading The Naked and the Dead years ago. What was all the fuss about, I wondered? (I recently had a similar feeling on reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)
Yet The Naked and the Dead continues to win gushing praise. David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times writes that it “ is considered by many the greatest American war novel ever written.”
Really? It’s better than Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (the greatest novel of the Civil War), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (the greatest American novel of World War I), or James Webb’s Fields of Fire (the greatest novel of the Vietnam War)? I think not.
It’s not even the best American novel of World War II. Not by a long shot. A number of books are actually much better, starting with, in no particular order, James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. I even prefer John Hersey’s slight work, A Bell for Adano, which is more like a long short story than a full-blown novel.
Let’s see. By my count that would make The Naked and the Dead at most the seventh-best novel written by an American about World War II, to say nothing of all American war novels. Of course the best novel about WWII wasn’t penned by an American. It was the three-volume Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh, whose biting wit, compelling plotting, vivid irony, and sparkling writing puts the puerile efforts of Norman Mailer to shame.