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Armageddon Now?

Hal’s “I like the work” would have had to seem a dangerously watered-down and facetious way of looking at things to either of his fathers. The founders of the CIA needed a great big vision to get this thing off the ground, and to justify a spy agency in peace-time, but in the giddy first years of the cold war the air was thick with visions, and while Harlot by elimination is based mostly on James Angleton (if he isn’t Angleton, who is?) there are times when he could easily pass for Whittaker Chambers in full rhetorical sail.

But second-generation bureaucrats need no such infusions of hot air to keep their department aloft and the appropriations coming. They know by heart, because it is all around them in their infancy, the great principle of stasis and stability in our democracy, which of course is that it needs a mighty effort to get something like the CIA, or the farm program, or anything at all started but a Herculean one to get it stopped. So they know they are safe to enjoy their work, which, under all its accretions of circumlocution and top-secret paper, has long since become its own justification.

And what work it is. For four hundred or so inspired pages Mailer portrays the CIA strutting its stuff in two very different regions (“theaters” would be the appropriate word), and anyone who can find a significant difference between their work and what is normally known as play deserves to be debriefed and turned into a mole before the other team finds out.

In Berlin, the game consists mostly of the constant turning and unturning of agents, so that no one on either side can begin to tell you which of “their people” are actually “our people,” or to what degree. The best possible insurance policy for an ambitious German of any age or sex who wants to get in on the fun is to sell his services to both sides simultaneously. But what makes it unmistakably a game is that none of this Len Deighton street theater makes any serious difference—none that can be found now, anyway, as one traces the real ups and downs of the cold war.

As ringmaster Bill Harvey—the actual name of the Berlin station chief—explains over his fifth martini or so, we already know all we need to know about the Russians (he is talking in the 1950s), to wit that they are years and years away from being able to invade Western Europe—a piece of information that must have been very hard to miss (just concealing all of the broken-down train lines would have been beyond anything we know of Russian capacities). Meanwhile the CIA’s task is simply to keep the pot bubbling, and the public entertained, so that there will still be a CIA when World Communism makes its big move for the souls of men.

If Harvey is right, it seems fair to extrapolate that many if not all of these fabulous CIA operations were simply cold war make-work, a WPA for Yalies and would-be Yalies, who would naturally need a Holy War to justify living off the government teat, to use their own phrase. And if this seems unduly cynical, once again one can only say that the operations certainly look like make-work for all the difference most of them made to the course of history. And anyway the estimate doesn’t come from Mailer, who is cautious to a (most welcome) fault with his own conjectures; it comes, like a burp, from the liverish Harvey who is a bit of an outsider himself, a former FBI defector in our own little cold war between agencies and the only operative uncouth enough to see through the exquisite Kim Philby. And Harvey’s putative drunkenness is itself a species of disinformation. Is he planting rumors today or genuinely blurting?

Whatever the real William Harvey may have been like, Mailer’s recreation is a true likeness of someone, and whoever it is is made to order for that spy novelist’s gold mine, postwar Berlin. A James Bond who is built like a pear and has to throw up periodically, Harvey comes across as at once grandiose and seedy, a dandy who can fart at will and an all-round bilious interloper at the CIA branch of the Yale drama school. If the game is to acquire information that you don’t need as sensationally as possible, he will by God go all the way and build a tunnel right under the enemy’s ass to get it—just the kind of caper to make one a legend in the agency, which is all, one suspects, that most of these people really want.

And to match Harvey excess by wretched excess, Mailer has fashioned Dix Butler, an authentic wild man of the Fifties, yawping and clawing for experience like Jack Kerouac or, less primitively, like Henderson the Rain King, as the schoolmarms close in on him. The game for the likes of Dix Butler is to stay in booze money without either having to wear a suit or quite break the law, and once again the CIA is the ideal answer, like a government grant, and Berlin the perfect playground. Since virtually every Berliner is a potential agent waiting for someone to turn and unturn him, Butler is free to roar through bars and bordellos to his heart’s delight, bullying and seducing as the mood takes him while the agents fall out of the trees either way, and writing it all off to limitless expenses. At European prices, even graduate students used to feel like conquerors in those days. But here is the real swaggering thing, and Butler’s triumphal rambles constitute a quite brilliant choice by Mailer as foreground to the whole crazy “we may all be dead tomorrow, so what’ll we do tonight” atmosphere of a great city perched on the edge of the cold war, halfway between terror and boredom. (“Don’t tell me we may all be dead tomorrow again?”)

Even in the CIA, all good things and postings come to an end—but if you play your cards right, they are replaced by more good things, and our narrator Hal Hubbard next finds himself in Uruguay, where a different kind of play is going on, as different as Wagner from Puccini, but not without its giggles.

Operatic is probably the only word to describe the Latin political style as rendered by Mailer, or even by Castro, and once again, Mailer and the CIA have chosen a most suitable American to insert into the plot. Howard Hunt is the author’s second “real” character of any consequence, and once more Mailer has probably tailored him to his own specifications, leaving only the name and a persona that doesn’t jar too grossly with the facts. At any rate, Mailer’s version is a very model of Yankee bella figura, the kind of dude who likes nothing better than to conduct his dirty business while hosing down his polo pony or exchanging gorgeously insincere after-dinner speeches with his hosts about the undying love between our great countries. Hunt’s normal agenda is as busy and vacuous as a day in the life of a Jane Austen heroine, and the high point of his bureau’s activities during Hubbard’s stay is the taping of an adultery in the Russian embassy, the publication of which will, it is hoped, cause one of the Russians to defect in a rage, though with what object nobody bothers to ask any more. It will simply give us someone else to debrief, re-brief and worry about and a temporary psychological edge—in Uruguay! Still it must be done. An agency can’t just sit there.

The tape of the adultery, transcribed in the pidgin Russian of a bad translation, is funnier than Mailer has ever shown signs of being, as if the general mellowing and cooling off of vanity much noted in cover stories have finally brought him to the point where most writers begin. Humor if it’s ever going to get there usually declares itself early, so a late-blooming humorist would be something to celebrate—especially this one, our intrepid conqueror of new worlds who only occasionally makes it.

A skeptic might pause here to point out that it’s hard not to be funny about the CIA, and outside of the fact that, as every comic knows, it is never hard not to be funny about anything, he would have a point. Yet at the same time one’s blood runs slightly chilled at the thought of grown men cackling like schoolboys over some of the pranks that pass for high policy in the CIA. The upper classes at play have always been a daunting sight to normal people, and when the sainted Harlot himself descends from the clouds in the last act and lights up with glee over a scheme to “turn”, a Jewish homosexual agent into a Christian hetero one in order to seduce information out of a homely secretary, one may feel that pig-sticking can’t be far behind.

And this is Mailer’s real subject, whatever he thinks it is himself: Dink Stover goes to Berlin, to Cuba, to Vietnam—but taking with him everywhere the sense of an old boys party at two in the morning where, amid the roar of laughter and crash of glass, somebody accidentally gets killed. One of the ways in which Mailer has been disinforming us most fiendishly about his own seriousness is the frequency with which he seems to have been dining out himself lately. But clearly this has been field work of the most exacting kind, a grueling excavation into the mind of the dining classes; and if he hasn’t always got the sound of these people quite right, this can perhaps be traced to one last damning piece of evidence Mailer has given us over the years, namely those peculiar little movies he made back in the Sixties, which suggested that, to put it tactfully, his ear for dialogue is not absolutely pitch perfect.

But dialogue has never been what Mailer is about; he wants nothing less than the souls, the essences of his subjects, in relation to which their dialogue is just the froth at the top of the mug. And the souls of the CIA might be looked for along the following lines.

In an officially classless society like our own, the ruling class has to be a shadowy affair by definition, a secret society unto itself whose members identify each other—but who can be sure?—by such outward signs of inward grace as accent and personal style (clothes are too easy to learn, and only weed out the troglodytes) and, above all, by “being in the know,” by being plugged into the central dynamo. If you got your information from a source in Washington, you barely pass, if you got it from “Tuppy” or “Boots” himself, you win this one cleanly. But if you do too much of either of these things, you’re trying too hard and you return to “go.”

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