September 17, 2021
Today, I read Mailer’s short story “The Dead Gook” as part of my research into the late short stories. It’s one of a handful of stories he wrote during the winter of 1951–52 when he was struggling to make progress on his third novel The Deer Park. This group of stories all seem to be colored by Norman Mailer’s mood at the time: since his second novel Barbary Shore had been panned by critics and he could not get his third novel going, he felt increasingly that “I had nothing important left to write about, that maybe I was not really a writer.” While I would say these stories are damn good—they are “The Paper House,” “The Language of Men,” “The Dead Gook,” “The Notebook,” and “The Man Who Studies Yoga”—each does seem to have a malaise—an oppression that the characters never seem to escape from. In other words, each protagonist is ultimately unsuccessful in overcoming the external forces that work against him as an individual, resulting in what I would characterize as a failed Mailerian protagonist. In each, there is an existential moment that tests the resolve of the protagonist, and he is unable to rise to the occasion—instead retreating more into himself and the protection of the status quo.
The story takes place sometime during WWII in the Philippines on an island occupied by Japanese and American forces in a kind of stalemate. Both sides are waiting for the war to be “determined elsewhere” and “They were satisfied to let events pass in the most quiet manner possible.” The story concerns an American military patrol led by a group of Filipinos sent on a vague mission. It turns out, the mission is to find out what happened to a missing Filipino guerrilla. It becomes much more than routine for one of the squad that day.
The protagonist of “The Dead Gook” is Private Brody—a man oppressed by the reality of the war, but more so by a Dear-John letter he received from his fiancée and what he sees as a pointless patrol that the “buck sergeant” Lucas agreed to undertake at the request of island’s native Filipinos. The soldiers on this island are in a sort of limbo, oppressed by the war, the interminable patrols that “went nowhere,” tropical diseases, and heavy equipment: “It was dreary. There was danger, but it was remote; there was diversion, but it was rare. . . . There were better things to do, but there were certainly worse.” While interminable, there was a quotidian regularity to their shared situation that seemed to give them a certain numbness that’s necessary to survive the situation while life was put on hold. However, an encounter with a dead Filipino soon disrupts this “quiet manner” for Private Brody and precipitates his existential crisis. “The Dead Gook” distinguishes between the everyday reality of death that a soldier encounters in war and that of an existential awareness of death that Brody has in the story. Brody’s crisis comes to a head when he encounters Luiz, the dead Filipino, “who was the first dead man who was completely dead to Brody, and it filled him with fright.”
Circumstances align just right in “The Dead Gook” to give Brody a bad day. His somewhat lax sergeant Lucas, “a big relaxed man who spoke slowly and thought slowly” agrees to accompany a group of Filipinos for some unknown purpose, unnecessarily risking the entire squad, thinks Brody, for the undeserving “Gooks.” This pointless patrol and the letter from his now ex-fiancée piques Brody’s high-string irritability and throws him into a rage. Mailer suggests that in this sense Brody is a sort of everyman—that this rage sooner or later affects “each of them at different times” when “everything he did expressed a generalized hatred toward the most astonishing people and objects.” Today’s bad day belongs to Brody, but Mailer seems to say that these crises are individual moments of rage, but are shared by all soldiers at one time. Poignantly, then, Brody’s imminent existential crisis precipitated by his encounter with the “completely dead” guerrilla suggests that this sort of feeling, like death, will ultimately affect us all. Maybe, Mailer seems to posit, we can learn something about how to react to our individual crises by seeing how Brody reacts to his.
Brody’s initial dis-ease begins when the letter breaks the “quiet manner” of the war and reminds “him of how he lived, and that was unbearable.” Brody’s existential moment “destroyed his armor” and “made Brody wonder who he was, and what it would mean if he would die.”
. . .