Soviet communism is dead, the KGB disgraced, the statues of Lenin toppled, and now, as if to rain on our party, comes Norman Mailer with “Harlot’s Ghost,” his staggering novel-cum-history of the Central Intelligence Agency and the ambiguities and excesses of the Cold War as it was waged in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. While columnists and congressmen rejoice in the alleged triumph of democracy, Mailer is only beginning to count the casualties.
“Harlot’s Ghost” is Mailer’s first book in six years, and his first since “The Executioner’s Song” to tangle with “real” life in America. Its seed may be found in his 1976 essay, “A Harlot High and Low,” in which he ponders the psychology and sociology of the CIA and the implications of its involvement in Watergate. “It is painful,” he wrote there, ". . . to relinquish one’s hope for a narrative, to admit that study of the CIA may not lead to the exposure of facts so much as to the epistemology of facts. We will not get the goods so quickly as we will learn how to construct a model which will tell us why we cannot get the goods.”
If ever there was a recipe for an anti-novel, for a formal prose work whose aim is the thwarting of formal resolution, this is it. And indeed, “Harlot’s Ghost” is as odd in its architecture as it is immense in its proportions. The book consists of an unfinished spy story and an unfinished memoir, mortared together with italics and ending with the words To be continued .
The spy story turns on a scenario which, in light of Iran-Contra and the BCCI scandal, seems eminently plausible. Suppose that in order to free its most covert operations from Congressional scrutiny and funding the CIA has created independent sources of revenue. Suppose that the real target of the 1972 Watergate break-in (those Cuban burglars were old CIA operatives, after all) was not the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor but the offices of the Federal Reserve Board one floor up. Suppose that CIA moles are getting an insider’s jump on the Fed’s changes in the discount rate, and making illegal billions for the Agency.
In 1983, as the novel opens, these suppositions have impinged on the life of “Harlot’s Ghost’s” narrator, an aging writer by the name of Herrick (Harry) Hubbard. Like our current President, Harry is a Yale alum, a semi-retired CIA man, and a thorough Wasp. Harry’s father, godfather and wife all are members of the Agency. The wife, Kittredge, happens as well to be the former wife of the godfather, Hugh Montague--a.k.a. “Harlot.”
Harlot is both a counterintelligence expert and a free agent within the Agency, a “Knight-Errant” empowered to spy on spies, to pass like a ghost through the walls of secrecy that protect the Agency’s varied and often warring operations from each other. With the help of his godson and former wife, he has been investigating the Agency’s secret funding. Then, one foggy night, disaster strikes. Returning to his island home off the coast of Maine, Harry learns that Harlot is dead, his body washed ashore in the Chesapeake, all of his head but the jawbone blown off with a shotgun.
Like the front end of so many of Mailer’s books, the opening of “Harlot’s Ghost” is irresistible. There are ghosts and guns and sex, a risky sea crossing, coded messages from Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” wrenching betrayals, and wave upon wave of questions: Has Harlot been murdered by the KGB? By the CIA operatives whose financial dealings he was following? Or has he faked his own death and defected to the KGB? Mailer gives the screw several more turns, and then takes a sure-footed leap into uncanniness:
“I began to have the certainty,” Harry writes of his drive through the fog, “that if I returned to that hairpin turn where the wheel whipped out of my hands, why then I would see not an empty road, but an automobile smashed against a tree, and behind the windshield would be my shattered person. I saw this mangled presence with such clarity that I was convinced: I had gone over . . . All recollection of myself driving a car, headlights prancing forward like the luminous forelegs of a great steed, was no more than the unwinding of such expectations. I was merely in the first hour of my death.”
To the novel’s 100-page overture Harry gives the name “Omega.” The 1,200 pages of memoir that follow are called “Alpha” and recount Harry’s recruitment into the CIA, his early training, his postings in Berlin and Uruguay, his work as a recruiter and junior political officer for the Bay of Pigs, and his contributions to the various CIA attempts on Fidel Castro’s life.
The best section of the memoir is devoted to Harry’s months in Berlin in 1956. Here we encounter good local color, nifty gambits involving former Nazis, classic suspense about when and how Harry will lose his virginity, and a good illustration of why CIA men call their business The Game. Soon after Harry arrives in Berlin, the CIA’s chief of station, the real historical figure William Harvey, assigns him to track down the indentity of one KU/CLOAKROOM, a file clerk in Washington whom Bill Harvey suspects of incompetence at best, treachery at worst. Harry duly reports the transformation of KU/CLOAKROOM into KU/ROPES, then DN/FRAGMENT, then SM/ONION--a cryptonymic shell-game arranged by Harlot in order to protect the young KU/CLOAKROOM, who is, of course, Harry himself. (In a novel otherwise shy on real humor, Mailer has lots of fun with cryptonyms.)
The Berlin chapters acquaint us with two of the novel’s finest characters: the shrewd, vulgar Bill Harvey, who packs two pistols day and night and always has a pitcher of martinis in his car; and Harry’s fellow recruit Dix Butler, an ambitious and terrifying bisexual who is the instigator of an amazing scene that conflates the doubleness of human gender, the double life of an agent and the double lives of ‘50s homosexuals. Although Mailer’s CIA is as much a man’s world as Hemingway’s worlds of hunting or bullfighting (predictably, he idealizes boxing and rock climbing and heavy drinking), “Harlot’s Ghost” goes out of its way to illuminate the homoeroticism latent in such a world. Harry rejects Dix’s advances, not because they repel him but for fear that if he were to accept them, he “might live forever on this side of sex.”
In Berlin, Harry also has a chance to visit the tunnel the CIA has bored into the Soviet sector. Communications intercepted by agents in the tunnel reveal that the Soviets are in no position to invade West Germany, but the CIA is suppressing this information because, as Harlot explains to Harry, “Once we decide that the Soviet is militarily incapable of largely military attacks, the American people will go soft on Communism. There’s a puppy dog in the average American. Lick your boots, lick your face.” When it subsequently turns out that someone in the West tipped off the KGB to the tunnel’s existence early on, Harlot demonstrates the “good high patriotic reasons” for such a tip-off, because “once the tunnel is blown, all such intelligence is tainted. It can’t be relied on for military policy . . . We have to keep arming just as we have been doing.”
The idea of a “patriotic” mole is one small indication of the remarkable job Mailer has done of imagining the infinite regression of motives in intra-Agency politics. He is equally persuasive in positing a heartless, abstracted version of Christianity as the primum mobile in CIA personnel. God is presented as a kind of metaphysical superspy whose loyalties are never wholly certain--although in the years covered by “Alpha,” Harlot and Harry have little doubt that He is on America’s side.
In a foreword to his memoir, Harry warns that “any sophisticated reader of spy novels picking up this book in the hope of encountering a splendidly plotted work will discover themselves on unfamiliar ground.” He adduces a dictum of Thomas Mann: “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.”
It’s hard to quibble with Mann, but the further Mailer retreats from the open fields of speculation into the confines of “real” history, the more exhausting the exhaustive gets. The 900 pages of memoir that follow Berlin, though seldom outright boring, become a chore to read. The novel-length section devoted to Harry’s stint in Uruguay could have been cut in its entirety. The even longer account of the Bay of Pigs operation is a welter of Cuban names and Mafia entanglements, clouded by the author’s own apparent uncertainty about Harry’s role in it, and enlivened only intermittently by Harry’s sexual involvement with a neurotic Mob moll who also sleeps with Jack Kennedy.
Pages of breathtaking analysis, mainly from Harlot, are offset by pages of bad analysis, mainly from Harlot’s wife Kittredge, who in addition to being “an absolute beauty” is described repeatedly and with no apparent irony as “a genius.” Kittredge’s theory of agent psychology centers on the notion that every human being has two personalities, an “Alpha” and an “Omega,” but the theory remains so abstract that it hardly seems to merit all the attention the Agency gives it. As pen pals and soon-to-be lovers, Kittredge and Harry chatter about each other’s Alphas and Omegas incessantly; it’s like listening to college freshmen.
The book’s final section, covering the months before Kennedy’s assassination, falls particularly flat. Mailer can entertainingly reanimate historical figures like crime boss Sam Giancana, where little is known and much can be imagined. But Jack Kennedy (and Bobby Kennedy and Frank Sinatra and other celebs who appear here) were long ago claimed by the world of images, and Mailer’s determination to present them as speaking, fornicating human beings serve mainly to highlight the limits of the memoir form. Since Harry never meets Kennedy, his impressions come by way of letters from the insufferable Kittredge (she and Harlot see the Kennedys socially) and transcripts of the Mob moll’s phone calls; here Mailer’s weakness at rendering female voices produces some disastrously wooden effects.
The sheer length of “Harlot’s Ghost” is enough to tax even a great writer’s inventiveness. Evocations of place and character grow noticeably duller as the book grinds on. The injection of Mailer’s own flavorful, combative personality into characters like Harlot and Bill Harvey only partially redeems the uninflected voice and general fecklessness of Harry Hubbard. With each succeeding chapter, the author’s unwillingness to portray women in terms of anything but sexual utility (Kittredge’s abstract “genius” feels like a male writer’s fantasy) becomes harder to forgive. And Mailer’s worst vice--redundancy--finds plenty of room to play here.
What ultimately sinks the book, however, is not so much its length as its divided nature. Even as Mailer weakens history’s existential power with the intrusions of his imagination, the weight of historical fact is flattening characters and distending plot lines. The book has neither history’s inevitability nor a novel’s romantic hero to pull it forward; it neither insists on our attention, as a good history can, nor engages our sympathies, as a long novel must.
For all the intelligence and honorable intent Mailer brings to bear on the CIA, it’s dismaying that this longtime defender of art’s role in the 20th Century--this scourge of the technocracy, this prophet of the irrational, this champion of a beleaguered nature--should in “Harlot’s Ghost” so betray the novel form; should thereby actively abet, in fact, that empire of the literal and newsworthy that has all but eliminated art as a force in the American imagination.