The Armies of the Night is not only a brilliant product of the countercultural ferment of the late 1960’s but also an enduring attempt to challenge the categorical limits of nonfiction, which it shares with contemporary works by Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and others. With his first book, The Naked and the Dead (1948), a work of fiction that drew on his combat experiences in the Pacific theater of World War II, Mailer was hailed as the most promising novelist of his generation. Barbary Shore (1951), The Deer Park (1955), An American Dream (1965), and Why Are We in Vietnam? did not fulfill the promise. Twenty years after his debut as a novelist, Mailer began to distinguish himself by endowing reportage with the power of imaginative fiction, by offering up dazzling verbal displays that bear the authority of actuality.
The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s rendition of a 1967 march against the Pentagon, was soon followed by Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1969), an account of the Republican and Democratic national conventions of 1968, Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), a report on the American space program, The Prisoner of Sex (1971), Mailer’s take on the women’s movement, and The Executioner’s Song (1979), the story of condemned murderer Gary Gilmore. Immersing himself in such salient issues of the day as the Vietnam War, electoral politics, feminism, sports, homicide, and aerospace, Mailer applied his novelistic gifts to depicting and ruminating over contemporary characters and events that he did not invent.
The Armies of the Night recounts its own genesis, in the inspired aftermath of a condensed, intense experience. The narrative derives power by concentrating its plot in a few abundant days and confining its composition to a few inspired weeks. Mailer began writing, rapidly, soon after returning from Washington that October, 1967, and the first fragment of his account, titled “The Steps of the Pentagon,” appeared in print as early as March, 1968, in Harper’s Magazine. The completed book, published a few months later, begins with an excerpt from Time magazine and concludes the first...
(The entire section is 925 words.)