War is hell. And that's my rationale for sipping on a Plymouth Navy Strength Gin martini while writing this review. If I didn't steady my nerves with copious quantities of booze, I might freak out from the trauma of writing about a novel that delves into the horrors of war. And the Plymouth Navy Strength Gin has plenty of booze. It's just as delicious as "regular" Plymouth Gin but it's 57% alcohol instead of 41.2%. Sure it's a bit harsher due to the higher proof, but it gets you there quicker and it's apparently appropriate to use when discussing a war novel because it's approved by the navy. Although I'm not sure which navy. Probably the British Navy, but I'm just guessing there. Ahoy mates, down the hatch!
Anyway, yes, war is hell, even after a martini or two. And this book was hell for me to get through. Not because its descriptions of warfare are so hellish that I freaked out. But actually because I found it a bit dull, at least the first half of the book. In fact, this was my second attempt to read the novel...the first attempt was a year or so ago, and petered out after about a hundred pages. This time I stuck with it, and I'm glad to say that the novel picked up in the second half in a big way, although the first half was slow going. War may be hell, but reading about it became less hellish as the book went along. At least for me, not for the characters.
This was Norman Mailer's first book. He went into the army after graduating from Harvard (personal note: he was a classmate of my father's at Harvard, although my father never knew him), and served in the Pacific during World War II, and his experiences there formed the basis of this novel. The theme of this novel is not so much "war is hell" (although it is hell, and some of the characters go through hellish experiences), but more "much of war is absurd and pointless". This novel follows a platoon of soldiers involved in fighting for the capture of the fictitious Pacific island Anopopei from the Japanese. In the first half of the novel, the soldiers land on the island, have a couple of major battles, and then just hang around in camp while the American and Japanese lines hold tight as they lob artillery at one another. It's basically a stalemate. The Americans are a hodge-podge of ethnicities (A Mexican! Two Jews!) and backgrounds (An Ivy League grad! A working class redneck!), who suffered through the Depression and then volunteered for, or got drafted into, the army. They're bored and/or scared, except for General Cummings who is in charge of the invasion and is a son of a bitch, as generals are want to be, and Croft, a patrol leader who is a sadistic, hard-driving motherfucker (or in the case of this novel, a motherfugger...Mailer notoriously had to change every "fuck" in the novel, and there are lots of them, to "fug" in order to please his publisher). Frankly, I found the characters hard to tell apart at times. Mailer goes into their backgrounds in flashbacks, but many of these are a bit forgettable, and many of the characters blurred together for me. You can tell this is a first novel...some of the dialog is wooden and not very believable, and the book could have used some editing at over 700 pages.
Anyway, the book picks up in the second half, when the general sends a platoon of soldiers out on a reconnaissance mission. They are to take a boat around to the other side of the island, where they must make their way inland behind the Japanese lines, to scout out the enemy's positions. This part of the book is much more suspenseful, and Mailer does a great job with making this part more of a page turner. But ultimately the mission becomes pointless. One man is shot and seriously injured, and so four soldiers must carry him back through the jungle on a stretcher. This makes the platoon smaller, and less capable. Mailer's description of the soldiers carrying the wounded man back is masterful...it's brutally hot and arduous and completely exhausting, and the wounded man's condition worsens and worsens. The author really makes you feel the men's pain and exhaustion. It made me realize, as an old fuck, that war is a young man's domain...old dudes like me never would survive this shit. In the end, the reconnaissance mission proves pointless...the wounded man dies, and the rest of the men have to turn back when they are savagely attacked by hornets while at the point of complete exhaustion from trying to climb a mountain over to the Japanese positions. And to cap it all off, while the platoon is on its reconnaissance mission, the Japanese lines collapse due in part to hunger and exhaustion of the enemy, and in part due to a lucky mistake that a junior American officer makes while the general is away, and so the Americans easily take the island without need of the reconnaissance mission. Mailer is good at making his point that war is absurd and boring and exhausting, and that many people die for pointless and absurd reasons. But I think Joseph Heller's Catch 22 makes these same points when it came out 13 years later, in what is a much better novel.
And in the end, this novel seems a bit dated. When it was written, Mailer's journalistic style, his descriptions of not always admirable common soldiers, and the sometimes brutal nihilism must have all come as a shock to Americans in the 1940s. But today, the world seems to have caught up with Mailer's point of view. Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket all portray the brutality and dehumanization and absurdity of war in ways beyond what people were exposed to in mid-Twentieth Century America. And TV shows like Band of Brothers and The Pacific also cast World War II in a more realistic and brutal light (both of which, by the way, are based on real soldiers' stories and are well worth watching, if you haven't seen them). So yeah, I'm glad I read this book, but it's not one of my favorites that I've read for this blog. Ah well, so war may be hell, but writing an enduring war novel that remains relevant for centuries may be even more hellish. Unless you're Homer...his Iliad has certainly stood the test of time. But then, Homer never got to enjoy a delicious martini. Poor guy...that in itself is a whole different type of hell.