Set during World War II, The Naked and the Dead is about a platoon of soldiers whose commander, General Cummings, is trying to take an island in the South Pacific from the Japanese. The 700+ page novel shifts back and forth between the action with the platoon (led by the monstrous Sgt. Croft) as well as examinations of their respective psyches, the machinations of the odious Cummings and a detailed look at each character’s life before the war. Gritty, raw, unrelenting, unsparing — this is Naturalism at its best — or worst, depending on your feelings about the genre.
The Naked and the Dead is a staggering novel. Influenced heavily by Tolstoy (according to the author’s introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition) Mailer wrote it when he was only 23. Unbelievable. As some of the enlisted men in the novel might say, it’s fugging brilliant. I was shattered when I finally finished it. I don’t even want to talk about it too much; I just want people to go read it.
A movie version of the book was released in 1958. Although it couldn’t possibly have the depth that the novel does, I’d like to see it because it has a strong cast. Supposedly a remake is in the works as well.