If Norman Mailer’s own character Harlot were reviewing this book—and what better occupation for a retired superspy with the most devious mind in the West?—he would probably deduce by way of background that the author has spent a suspicious amount of time preparing us to expect the worst of this book, no doubt to ensure that when it got here we would hold our breath at every curve and dip in the plot—oh my God, he’s not going to make it. “Mailer and the CIA”—by now the very phrase is enough to strike terror in the heart of a stunt man or soldier of fortune, let alone a cautious, bet-hedging reviewer.
Since two can play at this game—and since you can’t just leap into reviewing a book of 1,310 pages—let me string out the suspense a little by reminding late arrivals of exactly why Mailer’s campaign of disinformation worked so well. To begin with, the subject. The CIA is like a china shop disguised as a rumpus room and the Mailer of legend is at least half bull. Since practically nothing about any spy agency, even a leaky one like the CIA, can ever be proved one way or the other, it looks as if the novelist can do whatever he likes with it; and the CIA’s own conceits have already set formidable standards for fantasy. You wouldn’t suppose that you could go too far in making up stories about the dreamers who once actually plotted to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out—causing him to lose face, so to speak, by gaining it. The sky inside these people’s heads would appear to be the limit.
But, of course, there are limits even in there, and laws of probability, and the fact that they are not plainly visible makes the writer’s task harder, not easier. If you play tennis without a net, you had better be awfully good at imagining nets, all the way down to the net-cord shots, and at devising rules that make sense in a situationless situation. And who would want to impose rules on an imagination that has given us over the years theories about cancer and sex, unfairly but fatally reminiscent of General Jack D. Ripper himself—or to home in closer to our topic, a mind that proposed just eighteen short years ago founding “a people’s CIA,” to guarantee everyone a piece of the paranoia.
Of course, we knew that Mailer knew better. For all his apparently riotous living, much of which seemed to take place on television, none of his synapses seemed to be missing yet and he certainly hadn’t passed that point of no return for writers, the loss of energy. Even the weakest of his only-kidding books, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, fairly hummed with the stuff, but quite pointlessly, like a powerful machine that has spun out of control and is careering off the walls of the lab. After a while you stop expecting anything great from it and just wait for it to run down.
By the time of Watergate at the latest, Mailer seemed so far sunk in playfulness and the need to be original that he couldn’t give a straight answer to anything. And as if to round off this spree, he finally disgorged a novel that was so hellbent on being great that it skipped goodness altogether. Unless Ancient Evenings really is an inspired guess about primitive consciousness (and we’ll never know), it has to stand on its linguistic-cum-psychological ingenuity. And even Hemingway at his most afflated never talked of going one on one with Finnegans Wake.
Yet in retrospect, Ancient Evenings may have been a good book to get out of one’s system, like a giant kidney stone. It was, to the point of parody, the kind of quasi-masterpiece that is in no hurry to be appreciated: if the critics don’t like it now, maybe they will twenty years from now. Or a hundred. It will still be there, a stake in the future. So that’s taken care of.
If Harlot is still with us—and if he ever guessed right about anything, which history gives reason to doubt—he would have noticed at least one good omen in those same years, namely The Executioner’s Song, a documentary style of book, in which the author seems to be testing how much he can efface himself from a text, how much he can not show off. The operation was so thoroughgoing that the reader found himself thinking at times, “This is great stuff—but why does it need Mailer?” But of course it was great precisely because of Mailer, whose best writing has always been self-effacing, possibly to his annoyance.
The chronology suggests that Executioner was partly designed to buy indulgence for Ancient Evenings, but if so, the price was way too high. What it did do was give its author a workout in American realism, far off his usual celebrity writer rounds, and us a reminder that the machine was as powerful as ever, and that Mailer could still control it whenever he chose to.
After just a few pages of Harlot’s Ghost, it becomes clear that he chooses to very much this time. And after a stretch of cranking and sputtering it also becomes reassuringly clear that the whole crazy contraption is working as well as if not better than ever.
The slow and somewhat “literary” opening, full of arcane New England botany and topology—the narrator’s “roots” in the most literal sense—is actually something of a decoy, and it seems only fair to warn the reader that it builds toward a climax that will just have to hang out there until the next volume. Although Mailer strikes some notes in this section that will reverberate through the whole enterprise, there are in sum an awful lot of words for a rather modest effect—a strategy more Conradian than Hemingwayesque—and I couldn’t help wondering, as the narrator wound into his “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” account of returning to an excessively haunted house for the climax that never quite comes, whether Mailer wasn’t intentionally slowing the reader down here and elsewhere (slow patches are dotted throughout, like speed bumps) to assure us that this will not be a page-turner, it will not be slick.
Anyway, slick the book certainly is not. But a page-turner it is for a great deal of the time, and none the worse for it. The best sequences in the book, all of which involve the CIA in action, require a certain breathlessness, as the operatives spin through their madcap motions faster than the speed of thought; as with the Red Queen in Alice this is the pace they have to maintain in spyland just to stay in the same place.
And the same place is very much where Mailer’s version of the CIA wants to stay—that is to say, right in the middle of a cold war that is built to last until Armageddon at the earliest (after which we’ll probably need an even larger budget), a cold war that bustles with activity and goes absolutely nowhere so that you can confidently enter your son’s name for it at birth at the same time you’re entering it for Yale. And never mind for a moment the relative probability of this version—suffice it to say that this is the kind of cold war we actually got, whether we got it Mailer’s way or not, and that the testimony in the recent Robert Gates hearings has been the best testimonial Mailer’s conjectures could possibly have hoped for. Unless several very impressive witnesses were lying, the real-life CIA put up a last-ditch struggle to save its cold war as grim as anything in the annals of welfare.
The heart of the novel concerns a properly Skull and Bonesy generational laying on of CIA hands. The hero, or Alice figure, one Hedrick (Hal or Harry) Hubbard, is a son of the pioneers, two of them in fact, his earthly father Cal being a straightforward, hard-drinking old Samurai who demands only the occasional display of superhuman courage to win his love, or at least his attention,1 and his spiritual one being Harlot himself, aka Hugh Tremont Montague, the company mystic and cold war metaphysician who wants a bit more—namely a leap of faith and a sense of transcendence, both symbolized by rock-climbing, which he and Hal solemnly undertake together as an ethereal rite of passage.
Like any good apostle Harlot burns to pass on his vision to a younger version of himself, but as, I suggest, is his wont, he guesses badly, wrong about both his disciple and his vision, since all he winds up actually passing on to young Hal is his own wife, who lands in the youngster’s bed after a thousand pages or so of footsy; and if he is still alive, he has been obliged to watch the whimpering end of the real cold war from a wheelchair, to which his rock-climbing has dispatched him, a victim for life of his own metaphor. Thus perish all spy organizations, one might wish.
Although Mailer does not push the symbolism of those events anything like as hard as this account may make it sound, Hal’s cuckolding of his god-father never quite makes sense on any but the symbolic level, any more than his love for his rather goatish father does. Never mind for now. A narrator doesn’t have to know why he does what he does. What is clear to us at least is that young Hal is a far cooler breed of cat than his elders—so much so that his real father asks him despairingly why he is in the agency at all and he answers, “Because I like the work.”
With this answer the book is, for my money, saved. If he had said either “I’m in it because I want to be like you,” or, self-deludingly, “I really hate Communism, you know,” it would have unleashed everything that is second-best about the novel. What made Mailer famous and worth writing about in the first place was neither his knowledge of the human heart, which is variable, nor his global theories, but his overpowering intuition of men at war—with each other, with civilization, but best of all with and within the organizations created by and for themselves.
The Naked and the Dead became easy to underestimate the minute after it had left the room and the impact had worn off. But for all its faults, it hit one like a pile driver the first time around, and here the same theme is back, with the bugs removed. And if it doesn’t hit quite as hard now, this is partly because the world had grown older and we’re used to Mailer and all the little mailers by now, but partly because it keeps on running long after the reader has lost his first wind, and because the impact seems at times to be packed in the thick cotton of a romance that starts out as an interesting possibility and ends up as a plot device. But if you follow Hal Hubbard’s instructions, and keep your eye on the work, you will find there the kind of intensely imagined world that only the very best novelists can create or sustain—leaving one to wonder where the author has been all these years. Like James Jones, his literary brother in arms, he comes to life at regimental reunions in whatever guise, and his strength comes surging back.
Of the two, the attention is the real prize, with a CIA father, if Tom Mangold's life of James Angleton (Cold Warrior, Simon and Schuster, 1991) is anything to judge by. In order to find any subject matter on which you could trust the old man, you would probably have to join the agency yourself, as Hal does.↩
Of the two, the attention is the real prize, with a CIA father, if Tom Mangold’s life of James Angleton (Cold Warrior, Simon and Schuster, 1991) is anything to judge by. In order to find any subject matter on which you could trust the old man, you would probably have to join the agency yourself, as Hal does.↩