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Armageddon Now?

The ideal ploy is, of course, to be perceived to be in the know while you talk about inscrutable nothings, holly-hocks, and hunting dogs—in other words to sound as English as possible. To be rumored to be in the CIA can be a source of immense social power in some circles, akin mutatis mutandis to being something or other in the Mafia. So of all the clubs this class has so far formed, to declare itself while giving nothing away, this government agency with the untraceable expense account is the purest and most platonic. We know who we are, and you just know that we’re someone pretty important. Perfect.

But the game doesn’t cease once you’re in the club: members must continue working on their style and their insideness until they die or drop from sight. In a piece of acute and assuringly accurate social observation, we find Kittredge Montague mocking Howard Hunt’s alleged snobbishness in a letter to Hal the narrator.

It seems that Hunt’s family, of which he seems so proud, is nothing like as good as hers, fancy that. It’s not, as her facetious tone makes urgently clear, that things of that kind really matter at all, but if Mr. Hunt wants to play by those rules—well, it does give her a heaven-sent chance to inform us of how very good her family is, without seeming to boast about it. I mean it really doesn’t matter, does it, either to her or the CIA? But Hunt (Mailer’s version) has given the impression that it matters to him, so just like that he has lost the game. He has blurted, in manner if not words, and shown his credentials, instead of assuming he doesn’t need to and just breezing on in. And since imposters and arrivistes have certain obvious advantages at intelligence over people who have never had to work at their manners, it is only fair that blue-bloods should seize such openings.

What is particularly haunting about this sequence, outside of the touching unself-consciousness with which real top people like Kittredge give their own game away again and again for novelists like Mailer—and Truman Capote—to snap up (it must seem to them like talking in front of the servants), is that you would have to be quite a ways inside the club yourself to see any difference whatever between Kittredge’s lofty family and Hunt’s inferior one. (I can only say, in the same “isn’t it all too silly?” spirit, that they both seem pretty trashy to a Sheed of Aberdeen and Sydney.)

But in the eyes that count, Howard Hunt is a minor-league gentleman perfectly suited to a minor-league country like Uruguay, where loud colors are more likely to impress the locals than the grays and nuances of a real bigleague gent—whom only another gent can truly appreciate anyway. And here toward the end of our hero’s apprenticeship the book reaches its first natural stopping place, with our traveling salesman-like representative, the alleged Hunt, matching style for style with the local blowhards, while over the transom and under the door seep the first emanations from Castro’s and Batista’s Cuba (culturally it is still both at once), which promises to be a really weird theater, if the first messengers are anything to go by: Chevi Fuertes, a café philosopher and double agent who is quite capable of turning and unturning himself from side to side by just listening to himself talk, and the fabulous Libertad, a transvestite courtesan who turns men, as it were, to putty in her hands.

2.

If Harvey was perfect for Berlin and Hunt for Uruguay, what manner of creature could the agency have up its sleeve for such a theater as this? No one, as we shall see to our regret, only the same ones recycled, as Mr. Gates is being recycled right now—but here I wish that Mailer had rung down the curtain on Volume One with the question still in the air; in fact I’m tempted to do so for him, by stamping his own phrase “to be continued” on this review before both the review and the book have to go wheezing together around the track one more time.

However, it probably wasn’t practical for him, in publishing terms, to stop, with all the comic strip events—the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, Jack Kennedy—still in front of him, and it isn’t practical for me. But if you don’t imagine an intermission about here, you may have the impression that the author is gasping for breath in the second half, whereas he is simply shuffling sets and characters and starting over with a slightly different kind of book.

By continuing the same one without pause, Mailer sacrifices several things, the most obvious being much chance of a careful reading by the first round of reviewers, who are guaranteed to use some of the space usually designed for analysis to groaning amusingly over the book’s length. To a busy reviewer, who is not paid by the hour or the ton of manuscript, the word “long” automatically means “too long,” and if such a one does read all the way to the end it will likely be with a sarcastic impatience that relatively few books can stand up to (see Moby-Dick).

Fortunately, readers who pay for their books don’t much mind how long they are, and for the material covered Harlot’s Ghost is not too long at all. Insofar as the subject of the novel is the CIA and its doings, one feels that it has barely gotten started by the end, and the coy “to be continued” is properly frustrating; but as a study of a group of people, it has meanwhile gotten steadily weaker and weaker, until some of the principals barely limp across the pseudo finish line and one doesn’t mind a bit if they decide to take a good long rest before starting up on their next rounds.

The most conspicuous casualty in length is the romance between Hal Hubbard and his godmother, Harlot’s wife, Kittredge. This was quite a stunt to attempt in the first place. It is hard for most male writers to render a female character at novel length, especially with the audience primed to jeer as it is with Mailer, and to some extent one may feel he has solved the problem by cheating a little and taking what used to be called a man’s mind and just adding skittishness. But this is to quibble. Anyone, man or woman, attempting to describe Katharine Hepburn, let alone Eleanor Roosevelt, would encounter even more disbelief. Indeed, any character held up to this kind of scrutiny begins to look kind of funny, so Mailer’s women never have a chance.

But by normal community standards, Kittredge is real enough and even likable enough (tastes will differ, as in real life). But Mailer is not content to leave her lifting the light-weights: she must also be captivating enough to keep our young narrator, who is many years her junior and lubricious to boot, in unconsummated thrall for the length of an Irish courtship almost entirely on the strength of her letter-writing ability, which, unlike her bewitching presence, is right out there on the page for us to be bewitched by, or not, ourselves.

As with any loony endeavor, the wonder is that this affair works at all. The note of private-joke casualness struck by any two strangers writing to each other is as hard to capture as a random number in math; yet, with our complicity, Mailer makes Kittredge’s letters sound real and plausibly attractive and sufficiently idiosyncratic right through the Uruguayan period, which means halfway through the book.

After which, forget it, as you might suppose. By the time Jack Kennedy has come and gone, the two lovers just seem to be shoveling information at each other in whatever voice comes to hand, and their occasional declarations of love sound perfunctory and no longer make sense to anyone but themselves. What on earth do they think they’re in love with at this point? We have reached the stage where the onlookers have completely given up on the couple. He may still be charmed by her caprices and changes of mood, but we don’t have to be. And whatever Kittredge decides to do next, be it, as the opening suggests, switching gears and taking off with Dix Butler, or merely flying to the moon, is all the same to us.

And the same goes double for her much advertised Alpha and Omega interpretation of personality. This gender-lite contribution to the world’s stock of dualisms—yin and yang, animus and anima, etc.—is almost the only trace in the book of Mailer’s spit-balling period when he was spraying the landscape with theories, and feminist critics may make what they will of the fact that he hands it to a woman. But it surely should be taken as a sincere compliment, a gift from the heart, because the theory is vintage Mailer. Note, by way of trademark, that there is no personality permitted, no life lived, within the extremes: either your Alpha is on top today or your Omega, and Lamda and Upsilon might as well pack up and go home. Anyone consulting the rich jumble in his own head may be relieved to learn that it all boils down to two distinct, fully articulated personalities—not one self to get drunk and the other to go to church, but each to do both, with varying degrees of willingness and profit—because from the inside one could swear there are a dozen or so bits and pieces of personality rattling around in there with one disheveled spokesman fronting for the lot of them to the outside world.

In other words, the theory, as baldly stated, seems at once both too schematic and too vague, and no better or worse than a hundred other theories that the owners don’t even bother to patent. The test of course is where Kittredge, a paid psychologist for the CIA, goes with it, and the answer I fear is just about nowhere, except to apply it to assorted events with predictably imprecise results: so-and-so’s Omega was really running wild today, it obviously hasn’t talked to his Alpha in months (but then what can you expect of a Gemini whose star is in Pisces?).

The only use for this jabberwocky worthy of the rest of the book would be to cite it as an example of the crazy things the CIA was willing to pay money for in those days. And if the author didn’t mean it that way, this is neither here nor there. The point is the Alpha-Omega doesn’t matter a straw to the real business of the novel. The only excuse for introducing it in the first place was presumably to provide some intellectual underpinning for a tale of divided souls. But this is not the primary work of the novelist anyway, which has fortunately been done so well and thoroughly in scene after fine scene that no amount of jaw-boning can fatally harm it.2

  1. 2

    Novelists who provide their own philosophizing somehow remind me of lay people who do their own legal work: even if they occasionally do it brilliantly there have to be better uses for their time, and in fact the best fiction of such professional philosophers as Sartre and Murdoch, and such gifted amateurs as Bellow and Percy, can usually be praised almost in exact ratio to how much philosophy has been left out.

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