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Armageddon Now?

Harlot’s Ghost

by Norman Mailer
Random House, 1,310 pp., $30.00

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.

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.”

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

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. 1

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 3

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

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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