• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Armageddon Now?

The labyrinthine psyches of the feral American Dix Butler and the serpentine Chevi Fuertes sprawl all over Kittredge’s blueprint obliterating the lines, and when the two or more of their personalities are finally brought together the shock of battle, of self colliding uncomprehendingly with self, almost explodes off the page. And this is just one of several epic male encounters, to which Mailer now brings the insights of age combined with the alertness mixed with apprehension of youth and of a time in life when one might, especially if one was Mailer, find oneself suddenly thrust into the very center of such scenes.

So well does Mailer convey the latent menace of the unhousebroken male that one of his most powerful confrontations can actually get away with occurring offstage in the best Aristotelian manner, without losing an ounce of fire power. The mere thought of Bill Harvey and Harlot being alone in the same room brought back memories to me at least of gazing spellbound at the headmaster’s door and wondering what’s happening in there, and what they will both look like immediately afterward. So it’s deflating to think that whatever it was could have been reduced even conceptually to a couple of Greek letters playing on separate seesaws. But here as elsewhere, one feels that Mailer the novelist and observer has scooted so far ahead of Mailer the thinker that the old philosopher can barely see his gifted partner’s back, although he still keeps trying to jump on it.

Harlot’s showdown with Harvey is one of the imposing peaks that defines the shape of the putative Volume One. But it is a defect of the novel and of the agency as well that both characters should be dragged into Volume Two, the Cuba volume, where they manifestly don’t belong. In the case of Harlot no real harm is done. Although Latin America isn’t his circus, Harlot can make mischief and subplots anywhere he goes, and the worst that happens from the novel’s point of view is that the reader mildly wishes that he, with his bag of tricks, and his wife Kittredge with her theories, would just go away for a while and let us concentrate on this new stuff. Harlot is presented as a man of a thousand faces, but he’s always wearing the same old one when we see him.

But the case of Bill Harvey is serious and constitutes perhaps the book’s most convincing criticism of the CIA. It is a feature of large organizations in general (for some reason, the Jesuits come to mind) that they like to keep their best people moving around and around until all the stars wind up in the wrong place—where if these best people are Jesuits they will learn humility and if they are agents they will from time to time imperil the free world, or at least inflict twenty or thirty years’ worth of damage on it.

In such organizations, when Parkinson’s law of upward failure is blocked vertically, it simply branches out sideways. Bill Harvey and his sidekick Dix Butler in Cuba, two Wagnerians in Puccini-land, neither know nor want to know that in this part of the world fighting words are actually an honored alternative to fighting, and that the last thing Castro or JFK wants is for anyone to be crass enough to act on Fidel’s arias. But what do politicians know about these things? thinks Harvey, from deep in the bag, his regular habitat, as it seems to be half of the agency’s. The CIA has its own wisdom; and Harvey, fresh from playing God in a real theater, knows better than anybody. Name a country, and he’ll tell you what’s good for it.

So it came to pass, in Mailer’s book at least, that Harvey and Butler, or cold warriors just like them, pretty much took Cuban policy by the scruff and hauled it into their own sphere, rocking the boat so hard that diplomacy was impossible and incidentally giving their president a much more fiendish fight than he ever got from Castro—although Mailer, on his best behavior throughout, doesn’t offer a specific assassination theory, but just surrounds the event with Cuban-CIA intrigue and leaves it up to us.

Fortunately a novelist doesn’t have to prove anything at all, just make it convincing, and by echoing and embellishing Philip Agee’s diary of those days,3 Mailer at least establishes (charmingly) a convincing setup for his version; the buzz of politics and toy soldier preparation with the Cuban refugees, the huge concentration of agency attention and personnel, and the nonstop unofficial raids on the Cuban coast to keep the pot boiling—all this just for a Bay of Pigs? Since that half-hearted fiasco is the most reliable guide we have to JFK’s own wishes, it is tempting to say that Mailer wouldn’t have to prove his case even outside a novel. If the agency didn’t want more war with Cuba than Kennedy did, then neither his moves nor theirs make any sense at all.

What Kennedy did want may possibly be deduced from his own rather dreamy choice of deus ex Pentagon to the Cuban mess, namely the quiet but ugly American himself, Edward Lansdale, surely the ultimate misplaced star of the cold war. Lansdale was by now in the position of somebody who had bet Truman to win in 1948—an expert forever, even if he never bet right on anything else as long as he lived. Having successfully won the obviously somewhat special hearts and minds of the Filipinos, Lansdale, the Kennedy boys figured, could do it anywhere, and before he was through, this peace-loving soul would have wandered into and slightly exacerbated hostilities in both the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

If this cross between a Bible salesman and minor college professor (Mailer’s version is kinder than Graham Greene’s) ever indeed had a chance in Cuba—and early returns suggest that he was completely at sea—the hostility of the agency quickly took care of that: for all its glamorous trimmings, the CIA had long since become a rock-ribbed bureaucracy that knew just how to deal with hotshots from upstairs, and of all the hearts and minds that Lansdale ever failed to work his charms on, none proved colder or more impenetrable than those of his countrymen, Bill Harvey and the boys at the club.

Meanwhile, back at the White House our president is making elaborately sure that no future novelist will ever have far to look for love interest, and it takes only the slightest of segues for our narrator to find himself spang in the middle of a Kennedy love caper.

Of all the real names in the book, the author makes the best case for using Kennedy’s. He says you can’t just invent a sexy, forty-two-year-old president any more than you can invent a Frank Sinatra.4 And Mailer has the good sense not to march these lions on stage but to leave them mostly in the oratio obliqua (extremely obliqua at times) of a flaky, hard-drinking air hostess named Modene Murphy, who is definitely the kind of woman Mailer can describe well, although doing so will probably not advance his cause with feminist critics. Within the limits of celebrity mimickry, Mailer aquits himself ingeniously, dashing off a charming and somewhat Shavian Kennedy, a warm-blooded version of Shaw’s Julius Caesar toying good humoredly with a considerably hipper Cleopatra. (Nothing is harder than for an older novelist to capture a young character just right, and Mailer’s Castro also sounds a touch too world-weary for his age in the few lines he’s given: or maybe it’s just the cares of state talking. In any event, both characters represent possible readings; neither is a travesty.)

There are no real travesties to be found in the book even when the characters seem to beg for it. Mailer had obviously decided he can get more out of them with the utmost seriousness and seeing them as far as is humanly possible as they see themselves. If he seems at times to have stayed inside them a little too long and gone over to their team halfway, that’s the chance you take when you work this close to your subjects. And the reward is the best Faustian deal a novelist could hope for, a slew of convincing portraits, even down to the bit parts, the faces at the embassy, the voices at the bar.

If, to suggest another equally impractical redrawing of the book’s boundaries, Harlot’s Ghost were to begin with the narrator’s arrival in Berlin, properly introduced, and end with the Bay of Pigs, it would be a much harder book to carp at. During most of this span, the author is safely within what athletes call “the zone” where, at least in terms of what he is attempting, he can do no wrong. If he announces an anecdote, or starts a scene, you have the sense that this is just what the story needs at this point. And even the CIA craft mumbo jumbo, which earlier in the book had reminded me of a slightly breezier version of Melville on whales, seems like part of the fun.

Which means that the reader is in the zone too, and helping. And so what if a character occasionally forgets his or her obligations not to sound too much like the author and barks out something in purest Mailerese (“believe this,” someone will say in midsentence, or “be very sure that…”). Just as one doesn’t notice the terrible prose in the last twenty pages of an Agatha Christie novel, so too whatever mistakes Mailer inevitably makes in this impressively long stretch of first-rate work are swept up in the action all the way to the Bay of Pigs, which Mailer describes in the manner of Stendhal at Waterloo: by the time the participants know what is happening, the battle is long since over. And they have the rest of their lives to discover that what seemed to them like the whole universe, or at least the glorious start of a major war, is perceived as a minor embarrassment on its way to a footnote by the outside world.

It can’t happen too often that history offers such a perfect climax to what an author has been saying. The Bay of Pigs has almost everything Mailer’s CIA is made of: hot air and hocus pocus, fecklessness and waste. The one thing it lacks, unfortunately, is the one thing that would let Mailer off the hook for good, namely finality. The Bay of Pigs didn’t change the CIA or even chasten it; it simply made the boys mad, to the roots of their schoolboy souls, and eager to make themselves seem even more necessary, to the roots of their bureaucratic souls.

No doubt to end the book here would be false to the facts, and to the nature of the subject. Still, it would be good for the novel, which after all, is not a perpetual motion machine, but is designed from the outset to go a certain distance, and not a heck of a lot further. Even a novel about the Hundred Years War has to end sometime, but Harlot’s Ghost runs right over the sides of the frame as the author tries to cram more and more history into a manifestly finite picture. The natural size has actually been established quite firmly by the opening sequence: as we enter an appropriately sinister country house, Harlot has either just died or defected, and Hal, Bix, Kittredge, and one other key character have been assembled and frozen there, as in a game.

Whatever else it does, the book obviously has to go back and lead the characters step by step into the house and unfreeze them and show why any of this matters: which means, at the very least, that it has to keep us interested in them. Yet faced with a choice of delivering on that pledge or giving us a sizzling account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mailer doesn’t hesitate.

Nor at this point should we perhaps want him to. By the time Khrushchev and Kennedy face off over the missiles, Harlot is just improvising like an old vaudevillian anyway, and not growing into the rich strange character we’ve been promised, while Hal and Kittredge are barely hanging on to each other like marathon dancers, in case the author should need them sometime. And the house, which has been so portentously described along with its ghost, disappears altogether. Meanwhile, Hal’s father Cal has undergone a quirky surge of life as a character, and Mailer has the wit and good sense to place any conjectures about Marilyn Monroe’s death squarely in Cal’s tipsily romantic skull. But Cal won’t even be in the big-bang scene that opens the book, so this is just more garnish. And the author’s own interest in resolving his story may be divined from his announcement that he plans to dash off a book about Picasso before he gets round to it. And if Picasso should lead to Matisse, or possibly to a novel about bullfighting (take that, Papa)—well, 1,310 pages is a lot of good behavior to make up for.

So we may never know what happened. Yet Harlot’s Ghost would not be the first book to contain a disastrous structural flaw (in the case of Tender is the Night, the flaw is almost a landmark by now). And the many excellent pages of this one should not be buried under its mistakes. Mailer writes English by ear and he swings for the fences, so his gaffes can be spectacular,5 but so can his successes, and I noted more apt and pleasing phrases than in any other Mailer book I can remember.

Beyond that, he has written a surprisingly well-orchestrated picaresque novel—more Deighton than le Carré, if one must have these slatternly comparisons—about a masonry within a masonry, namely about the Ivy Leaguers at the heart of the CIA who have been put on unlimited expenses to do what they do best, which is to dissimulate from morning to night, practicing on their wives and children and each other and occasionally on their opposite numbers from Russia for the big game that never comes, and secondly to have fun doing it—fun which seeps down through the ranks like laughing gas so that even the recruits from State Tech find themselves dashing off facetious memos in no time as part of their class apprenticeship.

No one, including Mailer, would suggest that this is the whole story about the CIA, most of whose work consists of clipping and pasting, as Miles Copeland’s book, Without Cloak or Dagger,6 plonkingly reveals, or even the whole story about covert action. In his epilogue, Mailer claims only to be writing about his own CIA, a valid psychological structure based on the facts and concerning which he has some striking and remarkably wise insights, as if he has finished sowing his intellectual wild oats once and for all.

However, granted that a man should be allowed to do what he likes with his own CIA—and perhaps the less literally accurate he is, the better for him—one flaw remains, even in terms of Mailer’s own construct, the seriousness of which readers may decide for themselves.

The reason the CIA attracted or at least neutralized so many left-centrists, who would have seemed its natural critics, was its apparent enlightenment and levelheadedness in a crazy-house time. Indeed when Joe McCarthy came sniffing around the CIA and Allen Dulles sent him packing, Dulles almost seemed to be winking at us—you’d be amazed at who we’re hiding in here. The CIA was indeed anti-Stalinist—wasn’t everyone?—but it wasn’t insane on the subject, which was enough to make it seem like Voltaire in that atmosphere.

Much of this was undoubtedly flim-flam, designed to do exactly what it did, silence the little magazine folk, but some of it surely wasn’t. A certain degree of sophistication, of coolness, has to have been at the very core of a CIA man’s self-definition, his unmistakable proof that he wasn’t an FBI man or other primitive. And the whole point of the real life James Angleton was that he was considered a crank by the illuminati of the agency, for his uncoolness about Communism, and those sappy enough to follow him were referred to by same as “fundamentalists,” for taking up with such a Messiah. The drama of Angleton was that he was so good at getting, or faking, results that the agency had to go along with him anyway, until he almost took it over the edge.

But you would guess none of this from Mailer, who makes no attempt to differentiate Harlot’s anti-Communism from that of the other spooks except to make it more high-flown. The others, when they talk about it at all, sound like run of the mill John Birchites. But Harlot sounds like—Spengler!

This seems to me a fat pitch missed, and a good story untold, but it’s not quite the flaw I’m referring to, which is not so much the lack of philosophical smarts within Mailer’s CIA (who finally cares?), as the complete lack of interest in, or apparent knowledge of global geopolitics. It is one matter to make the game the thing to the temporary exclusion of everything else, but it’s another to deny these men even a few minutes of speculation about particular political situations—hardly a single politician is named the whole time we’re in Berlin for instance—as if their work existed solipsistically completely outside of local politics while they gaze solemnly at something called World Communism and prepare themselves for the Big One. By leaving out part of their brains, Mailer has allowed his characters to seem a little less serious, a little more cartoony than they need have, but he has made up for it in ways that only he could have, and has given us, if you pick your pages carefully, a quite remarkable book about them.

  1. 3

    Philip Agee, Inside the Company: CIA Diary (Simon and Schuster, 1975).

  2. 4

    By good chance, the best case against using real names even in such overexposed cases as Kennedy’s is also made by Mailer in the form of an instruction from Harlot to his godson concerning the use of cryptonyms in intelligence work. “Real names, you see, distort our judgment,” says the old spook. “Especially for big game. After all, sediment has already collected in our evaluation of these people from all the old newspaper stories. Whereas an illfitting cryptonym can stimulate insights by wrenching one’s mind-set out of context.”

  3. 5

    I hate wasting space on this stuff, but one blooper that has to be mentioned, because it is a public menace, is the use of “cohort” for “colleague”; Mailer’s protagonists (if one can allow for more than one protagonist to a story) are supposed to be Latinists, and should know better.

  4. 6

    Simon and Schuster, 1974. Readers unfamiliar with the word plonking should consult the works of Stephen Potter passim. Lifemanship in particular could pass for a CIA manual.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print