Armageddon Now?

Harlot's Ghost

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

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

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…

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