The Young Lions, Irwin Shaw’s whopping novel about three very different World War II soldiers, was #10 on the 1948 bestseller list. However, it is clearly the best of that year’s novels by today’s standards. By comparison, the best of the rest are mediocre.
Shaw shows how people of different temperaments reach differently to war. Even though they may be equally good solders, some enjoy its challenges while others merely endure. War heightens their prewar personalities.
By contrast, the soldiers in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead are cogs in a wheel. The only thing that they have to recommend them is endurance. His men slog through the jungle the way they slogged through prewar life. They had no personalities to be heightened. Mailer’s book may be a truer picture of war, but it’s a depressing book.
Also in the good-but-depressing category is Tomorrow Will Be Better by Betty Smith. Smith’s battlefield is a poor urban neighborhood where people fight to get a better life for their kids. Like Mailer’s soldiers, Smith’s city dwellers have nothing to recommend them but endurance.
The 1948 list has some decent escape reading. Dinner at Antoine’s (Frances Parkinson Keyes), The Bishop’s Mantle (Agnes Sligh Turnbull) and Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge) fit in this category. Any of these is good take-on-vacation reading.