Selected Readings in Literature – 1. Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer lived from 1923 until 2007. His novel “The Naked and the Dead” was published in 1948. It is based on his experiences in the US Military during World War Two in the Philippines.

The Naked and the Dead

Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.

Future in the Past

This first paragraph of the book is in past simple tense. The coming invasion is a future event but it is described with “would PLUS verb”. Look at these verb phrases:

“would be lowered”

not “will be lowered”

“would ride through the surf”

not “will ride through the surf”

“would charge ashore”

not “will charge ashore”

From the point of view of the invading soldiers on the ships, the invasion is a future event, but for the reader it is already past. Everything is past. The events took place in a war long ago.

So the use of “would” in this case expresses “future in the past”.

Look at this phrase:

“some of them were going to be dead”

not “some of them are going to be dead”

Present Tense for Dramatic Effect

A soldier lies flat on his bunk, closes his eyes, and remains wide-awake. All about him, like the soughing of surf, he hears the murmurs of men dozing fitfully. “I won’t do it, I won’t do it,” someone cries out of a dream, and the soldier opens his eyes and gazes slowly about the hold, his vision becoming lost in the intricate tangle of hammocks and naked bodies and dangling equipment.

Note that all the verbs are in present tense. The story is in the past but Mailer writes this part in present tense for dramatic effect. Here is another example of a story in present tense for dramatic effect:

The Water Car

The Big Dream


the soughing of surf

the murmurs of men

Ship Vocabulary

He decides he wants to go to the head, and cursing a little, he wriggles up to a sitting position, his legs hanging over the bunk, the steel pipe of the hammock above cutting across his hunched back. He sighs, reaches for his shoes, which he has tied to a stanchion, and slowly puts them on. His bunk is the fourth in a tier of five, and he climbs down uncertainly in the half-darkness, afraid of stepping on one of the men in the hammocks below him. On the floor he picks his way through a tangle of bags and packs, stumbles once over a rifle, and makes his way to the bulkhead door. He passes through another hold whose aisle is just as cluttered, and
finally reaches the head.

The story begins on a ship. There is a lot of specialty ship vocabulary:

the head – the toilet

You don’t have to look the words up.

a stanchion

You can work out the rough meaning from context.

the bulkhead door

Note that all the verbs are still in present tense.

A Descriptive Passage – Present Continuous

Inside the air is steaming. Even now a man is using the sole fresh-water shower, which has been occupied ever since the troops have come on board. The soldier walks past the crap games in the unused salt-water shower stalls, and squats down on the wet split boards of the latrine.

Mailer uses continuous tense to show description. Simple tense moves the narrative forward and continuous tense is a pause for description.

the air is steaming

Note the Present Perfect (passive) Tense:

The shower has been occupied since the troops have come on board.

It shows a completed action which continues from a point in the past up until now.

Present Perfect Tense

He has forgotten his cigarettes and he bums one from a man sitting a few feet away. As he smokes he looks at the black wet floor littered with butts, and listens to the water sloshing through the latrine box. There has been really no excuse for coming, but he continues to sit on the box because it is cooler here, and the odor of the latrine, the brine, the chlorine, the clammy bland smell of wet metal is less oppressive than the heavy sweating fetor of the troop holds.

If the narrative is in present tense, we can use present perfect tense to show an earlier completed event which is relevant now:

He has forgotten his cigarettes.

He has forgotten his cigarettes (he forgot them before) so he has to bum one.

If the narrative is in past simple tense, we use past perfect tense for the same purpose:

He had forgotten his cigarettes, so he had to bum one.

The rest of the passage is in present tense as before, to give the feeling of immediacy or “now-ness” which creates a dramatic effect. The invasion is imminent.

Present Tense with a Reference to Remote Past

The soldier remains for a long time, and then slowly he stands up, hoists his green fatigue pants, and thinks of the struggle to get back to his bunk. He knows he will lie there waiting for the dawn and he says to himself, I wish it was time already, I don’t give a damn, I wish it was time already. And as he returns, he is thinking of an early morning in his childhood when he had lain awake because it was to be his birthday and his mother had promised him a party

Note that the present tense narrative is interrupted by a reference to the remote past in past perfect tense. Past perfect tense is a kind of past past tense which shows that an action is long ago.

He had lain in bed.

His mother had promised him a party.

Past Perfect Tense – Past Simple Tense

In the next paragraph the story moves to past simple tense which is much more common in novels than present simple tense.

Early that evening Wilson and Gallagher and Staff Sergeant Croft had started a game of seven card stud with a couple of orderlies from headquarters platoon. They had grabbed the only empty place on the hold deck where it was possible to see the cards once the lights were turned off. Even then they were forced to squint, for the only bulb still lit was a blue one near the ladder, and it was difficult to tell the red suits from the black. They had been playing for hours, and by now they were in a partial stupor.

Note that the action moves between past simple and past perfect.

had started
had grabbed
was possible to see
were turned off
were forced to squint
was difficult to tell
had been playing
were in a stupor

Almost all of the past simple verb phrases are in passive voice so they consist of “be” verb plus past participle.

Past perfect tense shows the game was started some time ago. Past Perfect continuous shows is had been going on for some time.

They had been playing for hours.

Was this reading too difficult? here are links to simpler stories for reading and vocabulary:

The Lives of a Man

Our Lady of the City

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