Mailer often said that it was his reading of James T. Farrell, especially of Farrell’s Studs Lonigan novels (1932-1935), that made him want to become a writer. Farrell wrote in a naturalistic style, vividly describing the society in which a young Irish boy grows up, matures, and dies. An urban novelist, concerned with how institutions press upon individuals, Farrell traced the story of an individual, Studs Lonigan, who dreamed of distinction but died in misery. What gripped Mailer was the idea that literature could be made from a young man’s quest for an identity while at the same time exploring the societal forces that conspire against individuality.
Mailer’s early short fiction before The Naked and the Dead featured young men caught in extremity—in war, in poverty, or in their travels when they threw in with rugged types and tested their mettle. The ethnicities and social backgrounds of his characters were important in defining their senses of the world and in determining their behavior. This is most clearly the case in “A Calculus at Heaven” (1942), set in the Pacific war theater, in which each character stands for a social type and class:
Bowen Hilliard, the captain, Ivy Leaguer and frustrated artist, who looks to war for some kind of resolution of his unfulfilled life; Dalucci, an Italian, working-class midwesterner, puzzled by his ineffectual life and wondering what it is all about; Wexler, a Jewish boy from New Jersey, proud of his football career and spoiling to show his Army buddies how tough a soldier he can be. These types and others foreshadow the panoramic method of The Naked and the Dead, in which Mailer presents a range of characters meant to represent the United States’ diversity and to describe the conditions of society.
Mailer’s style in this early fiction and in The Naked and the Dead was derivative of American writers Farrell, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos. Indeed, one of the appealing elements of The Naked and the Dead is Mailer’s deft blending of styles and points of view. Like Hemingway, he is concerned with the fate of individuals, but he links the fate of isolated characters to the destiny of society, showing (as Dos Passos would) how individual character and social class are connected. Like Farrell, who made the Irish neighborhoods of Chicago a graphic part of his fiction so that Studs was brought into high relief by his surroundings, Mailer made the story of men in war gripping by describing in riveting detail what it was like to slog through the terrain of the Philippines.
Ultimately, it was the influence of Hemingway that prevailed when Mailer decided, after the great success of his first published novel, that it was not enough to know his characters and their environment and to describe them faithfully. He had to have a great theme and significant events by which to measure himself as a writer. Barbary Shore and The Deer Park thus take on Cold War politics and the motion-picture industry as counters against which his characters must seek their true identities and philosophies. Neither Mailer’s second nor third novel is entirely satisfying because of his difficulty in creating a credible first-person voice. He was drawn to this mode of narration after deciding he no longer had the confidence of the third-person narrator he had used to sum up society in The Naked and the Dead.
The flaw he had trouble rectifying in Barbary Shore and The Deer Park was precisely that Mikey Lovett and Sergius O’Shaugnessy, his first-person narrators, were so tentative about themselves. Self-doubt increased the drama of their own quests for identity, but it also lent a certain vagueness and lack of color to the narratives, so that neither Lovett nor O’Shaugnessy was quite believable. They lacked the complex, idiosyncratic style Mailer was to develop in Advertisements for Myself (1959).
When Mailer decided to use himself—his troubles, his doubts, his conceits—his style developed and prospered. His theme was still the same, the trials of the individual in his confrontation with society, but now that confrontation was much more convincingly portrayed in the light of a complicated and often comic personality willing to delve very deeply into his own faults and follies. The impact of Mailer’s fiction is palpable in An American Dream, in which the first-person narrator, Stephen Rojack, has a mind that is as agile as Mailer’s own.
In The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s discovery of himself as a character capable of representing the conflicting forces of the country receives its most effective treatment. The style is successful because it is Mailer’s third-person commentary on himself as he takes up the protest against the Vietnam War by joining a march on the Pentagon. Referring to himself as a “left Conservative” is a canny way of expressing the contradictions in himself, of the middle-aged writer who is reluctant to give up his privileges to play the part of dissenter and yet who realizes that his creative power and insight often come when he finds himself in opposition to the status quo.
None of Mailer’s subsequent nonfiction equals the complexity of The Armies of the Night, although Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon, Marilyn, and The Fight all contain extended passages that rival his best autobiographical work. The Executioner’s Song, however, marks a return to the naturalistic method of The Naked and the Dead. Its cast of characters, depiction of the western landscape, and evocation of the eastern interests that turn Gilmore’s story into a media event far outclass his first novel’s understanding of society and politics.
Embedded in The Executioner’s Song is a quest to understand the very underpinnings of human identity, of the way the American character is related to human nature, and of the way life in the twentieth century United States was but an extension of the eternity of which Gilmore, for example, is sure he partakes. Notions of reincarnation and of karma inform much of Mailer s fiction and nonfiction since the early 1960’s; they culminate in Ancient Evenings, in which he creates a time and a land (ancient Egypt) that function on magic, telepathy, and reincarnation.
The Naked and the Dead
First published: 1948
Type of work: Novel
General Cummings sends a patrol to scale Mount Anaka as part of a strategy to destroy Japanese resistance on the island of Anopopei.
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 higher-ups who give the orders and plot the strategy of the war. General Cummings, a deeply conservative and aloof man, the product of a troubled childhood and of a first-class education, seeks to mold his army into an instrument of his own will. He is opposed in this by Harvard-educated Lieutenant Hearn, who rejects Cummings’s incipient fascism and disputes his authority. Attracted by Hearn’s...
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