Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gee Mom, I wanna go home

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: 209-357

My ability to summarize this book is somewhat crippled by the fact that it's written with virtually no plot. That said, it's surprisingly compelling anyway. At the moment, we're switching back and forth from the narrative of the current time, in which the soldiers are stationed on a Japanese-occupied island, to various narratives of the past, in which we learn their histories and reasons for joining the military in the first place. As I said, it's impossible to properly summarize the information, since there's a vast amount of it, but the histories of a couple of the characters certainly stand out.

One of the men, Red Valsen, grew up in a coal-mining town and worked in the mines himself after his father's death when Red was 13. He swore, not long after he began mining, that he would escape, and consequently left home at the age of 18, forsaking his duties as the breadwinner for the family. He became a tramp, occasionally washing dishes for money, but mostly getting drunk in railroad cars. I think Mailer, by giving us an extensive explanation of his background, is doing a creditable job of presenting a situation that is worse than being engaged in combat. For this solider, then, the hellish atmosphere of jungle engagement is preferable to the hellish atmosphere of both the coal mines and American transiency. I can't say that I blame the guy for abandoning his family in order to escape the coal mines. The idea of crouching in the dusty darkness for 12 of every 24 hours is completely unconscionable to me. (Then again, you're talking to the girl who walked out on a temp job because it consisted of working in an assembly line to put together folder contents for a conference. Putting sheets of paper one on top of the other for eight hours a day is unconscionable, too. I still should have just told them I was sick, but I'm not really ashamed of my moral stance for freedom from mind-numbing menial labor.)

In another of the flashback vignettes (which I need a better name for, but nothing's forthcoming), we're given the history of Hearn, the General's steward. In the present, he's bucking under the yoke of the General's authority, finding small ways in which to defy the man, who he considers somewhat irrational in his demands (and rightly so). In the end, however, the General proves to Hearn how untenable his rebellion is by threatening him with a court-martial for disobeying an order to pick up a cigarette butt that he, the General, has just dropped. It's immediately after this humiliating demonstration of the submissive nature of his role in the military that Mailer gives us Hearn's complete history, which enlightens us as to the reasons for his problem with authority and his urge to overtly rebel.

Hearn, as it turns out, is the son of a powerful Midwestern industrial tycoon. He grew up in an atmosphere of plenty and privilege, but when he went away to school (first boarding school and then college), discovered not only that didn't want to be a businessman like his father, but that, in fact, the principles of American business might be fundamentally flawed. In college, he ended up changing his major from medicine to English, and eventually refusing all of his father's money, financing his education instead by working menial jobs. He graduated and became an editor, but finding the work tedious, and inflamed by the craze for national defense immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, joined the army soon after.

Most of the soldiers have stories as personal and interesting as these, and I think it's in the telling of them that Mailer truly excels. The scenes of combat and jungle-slogging provide a successful contrast to these stories, but are far less interesting to me than the reasons why each man has chosen to subject himself to the cruel and taxing existence that defines a tour of duty during wartime. I'm surprised, despite my complaints about the combat scenes and details of the war, at how engaged I am. Ok, I still skim through large sections when they consist entirely of combat maneuvers, but I'm intrigued by the backstories and interpersonal dynamics of the men. As far as the battle for territory goes, because I suppose I should include that, there's been no progress or change, so mostly the soldiers have been hanging around playing cards and doing makework jobs like ditch-digging.

There is also, at one point, a lengthy description of a bombed-out field covered in corpses in various states of destruction and decay that I feel is fairly gratuitous. I understand that Mailer wants to provide a realistic picture of war, but the literary equivalent of a pan across the field would have been sufficient, rather than the closeup of each corpse's ruined face and body with which we were provided. Because ew.

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