The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s first published novel, was hailed for its riveting depiction of men in war, beset not only by the vicissitudes of battle but also by their social backgrounds and personal problems. Mailer put his brief combat experience to good use, beginning his novel by describing what it feels like to travel on a troop ship, cooped up with men from every part of the United States, anticipating combat but not knowing what it would really be like, and reflecting on life back home—traumatic childhood incidents, plans that were never accomplished, and dreams that remain unfulfilled.
Nearly half of the novel is used to build up the complex social context of the soldiers who will be picked for the dangerous mission to scale Mount Anaka behind enemy lines. In characters such as Roth and Goldstein, Mailer reveals the anti-Semitism rampant in the Army and the efforts of Jews either to ignore the prejudice or to prove their courage and loyalty. Slowly the soldiers on patrol learn to work together as a unit, even as Mailer interrupts the narrative of their approach to the mountain with flashbacks to their civilian lives. Detailed accounts of the irascible Gallagher’s life in Boston, easy-going Wilson’s love life in the South, and Croft’s rather sadistic life in Texas punctuate the conflict and the cooperation of the men on patrol.
Juxtaposed with the lives of common soldiers are the stories of the officers, the...
(The entire section is 592 words.)