Title: Harlot’s Ghost
Author: Norman Mailer
Mailer, Norman (2007). Harlot’s Ghost: A Novel. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Date Posted: December 9, 2016
Review by John Simon
Norman Mailer travels far in his writings. With one book he is in contemporary Utah, with another in ancient Egypt. Now he is on present-day Cape Cod; now, in his latest, all over the world from the late 1940s to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and beyond. He travels far and, generally, not light. Harlot’s Ghost, his new novel , runs to more than 1,300 pages, and where you expect to find THE END, you get instead TO BE CONTINUED.
This information can affect you in two ways. You may feel that this epic novel, which means among other things to explain United States foreign policy over the last few decades from the point of view of the Central Intelligence Agency (or, more specifically, three of its employees), is such a spellbinding re-creation of momentous events that the length of the first installment is well earned, and the wait for the second, however long, amply justified. Or you may feel that Mailer, though he writes as if privy to the secret thoughts and private conversations of the makers of history, from John F. Kennedy to Fidel Castro, from Allen Dulles to J. Edgar Hoover, from Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale to Howard Hunt, must make most of this up, then bend it to fit in with his fictional characters—who tend to pale by comparison—only to end up with an arbitrary, lopsided, lumpy novel that outstays its welcome. And keeps on outstaying it.
The three central characters, all inventions, interact intimately with major and minor historical figures in a device hallowed by much illustrious fiction, but especially in vogue since E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, in whose movie version, incidentally, Mailer played a supporting role. The trio—all New England blue bloods—comprises Hugh Tremont Montague, an urbane, icily fascinating, lethal top-level C.I.A. official; his much younger, beautiful wife, Hadley Kittredge Gardiner, a Radcliffe graduate from an academic family, herself a mid-level C.I.A. operative; and Herrick (Harry) Hubbard, second-generation C.I.A., protégé of Hugh, later godfather of Hugh and Kittredge’s son, still later lover and, subsequently, husband of Kittredge, only to be thrown over in turn. (I am not giving away too much, since all of this happens early in the story, which starts with its end, sort of, to progress toward its middle, sort of, with hints of what will come later if the author and we live that long.)
Harlot’s Ghost, then, begins with a prologue-cum-epilogue in which Harry talks about family prehistory, much of it taking place at the Keep, a residence of the Hubbards on a Maine island, haunted by the ghost of Augustus Farr, a pirate of olden days. The Keep is eventually bought by Hugh Montague, whose C.I.A. code name is Harlot—unusual, but then Hugh is altogether extraordinary—where he lives with Kittredge and their young son, Christopher. Hugh has not only taught Harry, who is his C.I.A. colleague Cal Hubbard’s son, how to climb rocks; he has also watched over Harry’s career at the Agency. Harry worships him, but he is also consumed with love for Kittredge, who in some strange, perverse but platonic way responds and flirts with him. Years have gone by, and Kittredge has become Harry’s mistress. In a climbing accident, Christopher is killed and Hugh breaks his back and ends up in a wheelchair.
Unforgiving, Kittredge marries Harry, who once saved her from suicide. Lovemaking with Kittredge is “fabulous,” what with Harry introducing her to the joys of French sex, whereas Hugh never went beyond Italian. But though copulation with Kittredge is “a sacrament,” Harry cheats on her with Chloe, a waitress, with whom it is “like kids in the barn.” One stormy night, Harry drives back to the Keep over slippery roads that nearly kill him, only to find Kittredge in a terrible state. Chloe calls Harry in a panic; her place has been mysteriously ransacked. Word has come that Hugh has died in a sailing accident; his decomposing body has been fished out of Chesapeake Bay. Or was it murder?
Arnie Rosen, a colleague of Harry’s from the C.I.A., has arrived with three men to watch the Keep. They are waiting for Dix Butler, an ex-colleague and perfect blond brute, vicious and irresistible. He has become deviously super-rich after leaving the Agency, and is apparently on his way to the Keep. More strange things happen. The Keep burns down with Arnie in it. Kittredge disappears with the bestial Dix, with whom she has fallen helplessly in love.
This is the stuff of popular fiction; one is reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. But Mailer decks it out with extraordinary twists and turns that only someone sure of his greatness would dare inflict on a reader who demands his widow’s mite of credibility. The chaste Kittredge, who has known no other man besides Hugh and Harry (unless we count the ghost of Augustus Farr, who “submitted [ sic ] me to horrors”), and who is now happily married to Harry, visits with Hugh an orgy farm that Dix runs near Washington, and sleeps repeatedly with that ruthless fellow, who, as a C.I.A. man, would torture the spies who worked for him: urinate on them when tied up in an S & M joint, force their heads into his unflushed toilet bowl. As she says, “With Dix Butler, I can’t explain why, I feel very close to Christ.”
After this opening section, we learn how Harry hid out in the Bronx for a year and wrote a long memoir, provisionally entitled The Game, of the years leading up to these events. Then, under an assumed name, he leaves for the Soviet Union, where he expects to find Harlot a revered defector, pampered by the K.G.B. Ensconced in Moscow’s Hotel Metropole, Harry rereads The Game on microfilm; this account constitutes the bulk of Harlot’s Ghost. In its first part, we follow Harry through his school years (at exclusive St. Matthew’s), college years (at Yale) and, more important than either, apprenticeship with Hugh on those vertical rock faces. After grueling training at the C.I.A., he puts in time working in the Agency files, where, under a cryptonym, he falls afoul of William King Harvey, the historic Berlin station chief and the first nonfiction figure that Mailer brings to deeply disquieting life.
Part Two takes us to Berlin, where Harry becomes Harvey’s assistant, beneficiary of his confidences as well as of his rages, during which this walking arsenal with weapons secreted all over his anatomy imperils anyone near him. Harvey’s pride and joy is a tunnel he has had secretly dug from West into East Berlin. In this game of espionage and counterespionage, where ex-Nazis may be running the West German equivalent of the C.I.A., and every German is a double agent if not something more complicated, Mailer’s two specialties—the fiction of paranoia and polymorphous-perverse fiction—have themselves a ball. The climax is a visit to a homosexual S & M dive to which Dix takes Harry; after that, in a particularly harrowing scene, Dix tries, unsuccessfully but deeply affectingly, to rape or seduce the still virginal young man.
Mailer comes up with a truly ingenious plot device: Harvey assigns Harry to track down the cryptonymous C.I.A. file clerk who, as Harvey sees it, defied his authority; reluctantly, Harry must trail himself. This is a variation on one of the great detective plots, from Oedipus Rex to that remarkable Elio Petri film, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. Saved by Hugh from Harvey’s ire, Harry lands back in Washington.
Part Three is taken up mostly with Hugh’s parallel lectures to high-echelon and lower-echelon C.I.A. personnel on the techniques of espionage and counterespionage. Here Mailer indulges his penchant for windy metaphysics and metapolitics, as well as his eagerness to show off his learning and verbiage. The learning is sketchier than he realizes, the verbiage riddled with grammatical and lexical errors, but the pontification proceeds undaunted: “Our discipline is exercised in the alley between two theaters—those separate playhouses of paranoia and cynicism. . . . Are [ we ] trying to analyze no more than an error by our opponents, a bureaucratic fumble, a gaffe, or, to the contrary, do we have before us an aria with carefully chosen dissonances?” Hugh gets grander and grander, but Harry’s reactions may be grandest of all—as when Hugh’s use of the word “artist” for a counterspy elicits from his disciple a comment about “using the word with as much nesting of his voice as an old Russian lady saying Pushkin .”
The C.I.A. does go in for musical analogies. Thus Allen Dulles, from the audience, interrupts Hugh’s lecture with an operatic trope for Communist fallibility: “When we have to listen to an awfully vain tenor who can never hit his high note, we do grow fond of him after a time. His very inability finally offers the dependable pleasure.” This is true neither to tenors nor to the tone of Allen Dulles—nor, I should think, to the tenor of C.I.A. discussions; but it may be Mailer’s plea for his own modus operandi . Throughout the book he has a tendency to get carried away with his imagery, as when Hugh, Kittredge and Harry attend one of Lenny Bruce’s performances, and suddenly “the most incredible sound issued unexpectedly from Kittredge. She could have been a horse who had just seen another horse trot by with a dead man in the saddle.” Does a horse care? They shoot people, don’t they?
Next, in Part Four, Harry is posted to Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is no longer an apprentice as in Berlin, but a budding spymaster working under none other than E. Howard Hunt, a formidable figure whose “long pointed nose had an indentation just above the tip that suggested a good deal of purpose in his trigger finger.” One would have to be a graduate of the C.I.A. to figure out that connection. In any case, Harry thrives at the Cold War game, Western hemisphere style. He has a torrid affair with Sally Porringer, the wife of one of his colleagues (and one of Mailer’s most touchingly delineated characters), gets involved with Uruguay’s most spectacular courtesan (a hermaphrodite who underwent a sex operation into womanhood), and plays havoc with the staff of the Soviet Embassy (all K.G.B. types) by bugging the bed in which one high-level Russian conducts a liaison with another one’s wife.
This Uruguayan section, encompassing the years 1956 to 1959, affords Mailer a chance to display his knowledge of the uneasy interaction between American diplomatic personnel and the C.I.A. guys for whom they must provide cover, even as other sections enable him to impress with his insights into the rivalry between the C.I.A. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has not only thoroughly done his homework (in an appendix he lists 80 odd relevant books he has perused), he has also integrated that material with his own inventions. These include Harry’s correspondence with his mentor, Hugh; another with his platonic beloved, Kittredge; and occasional communications from Arnie Rosen, one of Harry’s smartest colleagues, stationed back in Washington. Rosen, doubly uneasy in the C.I.A. as a homosexual and as a Jew, is nevertheless one of its shrewdest operatives, as well as one of Mailer’s most winning creations.
Mailer’s C.I.A., it must be noted, is very strong in the humanities. The talk here is full of erudite references to Alexander Calder, Henry Miller, Henry James, Hemingway, Melville, Kant, Lautreamont, Joyce, Kierkegaard, the Oxford English Dictionary, T. S. Eliot, Proust, Medea (in the Gilbert Murray translation), Pindar, Martin Buber, etc. Cal, Harry’s father (who, significantly, shares a nickname with Robert Lowell), eulogizes both Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner upon their passing. It is comforting to think that C.I.A. personnel, no longer needed as cold war fighters against a now democratic Soviet Union, will be able to slip easefully into a new role as preservers of humanistic culture.
Harry’s education in Uruguay ends, and he is transferred to Miami for Parts Five and Six, dealing respectively with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, leading up to Operation Mongoose, the attempt, between 1961 and 1963, to eliminate Castro by various undercover means. Here Mailer really comes into his own and vividly evokes the internecine intrigues among the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the Pentagon and the State and Justice Departments. Hugh, Harry, Kittredge, Hunt, Butler and Rosen are joined by such new players as General Lansdale, Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Modene Murphy, an amalgam of Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner, who provides Harry with the chance to steal a woman who is variously the mistress of Frank Sinatra, President Kennedy, and the gang lord Sam Giancana—the earnest of his ascent into manhood as well as secret agenthood.
Good as Mailer is at evoking straightforward action—a clandestine nocturnal operation by sea and land against Cuba is a gem any novelist could be proud of—he promptly lets his obsessions spoil his game. Through almost all his fictions, Mailer pursues, manicly or maniacally, power and sex, i.e., achieving supremacy in some profession such as politics or the military, and possessing the most beautiful women in the world. A Stendhal could make some magisterial fiction even out of this, but in Mailer the hang-ups are too naked, puerile, perverse.
The ultimate power becomes the ability to kill others (“the sense of realization you can get killing another human,” “There’s an awful fascination to be found in eliminating one’s fellow man”), the sexual pinnacle is to have the world’s most desired woman (“the sort you have to be ready to kill for”) according you, preferably, oral and anal sex, and, best of all, a willingness to go to bed with you and another woman. (Hard to get, that.)
The crowning refinement, of course, is to supplant your own father—by overcoming him in a test of strength, and by taking his woman away from him. Here Harry, Mailer’s alter ego, has two fathers: Cal and Hugh. He finally defeats Cal in a foot race and makes off with Hugh’s wife, Kittredge. (True, she leaves him later for Dix, but not to worry: Dix is yet another authorial stand-in, the artist as Devil incarnate.) And Harry becomes Hugh’s—Harlot’s—ghost: “I now see myself as his Shade.” He tracks Hugh, it seems, to the Soviet Union and, I would guess, bests and supersedes him in the sequel. Already this first installment ends with the affirmation “Harlot . . . was my embodiment.”
This not always successful supersession of the powerful but slightly corrupt father figure has been a paradigm of Mailer’s fiction since the start: Lieutenant Hearn and General Cummings in The Naked and the Dead; Sergius O’Shaughnessy and Charles Francis Eitel in The Deer Park, and so on. It is touching in its way; it reminds one of Bambi, whose young deer hero eventually reincarnates his father, the mighty antlered stag whom he has always looked up to in awe.
But there are aspects of Mailer’s fiction that are less endearing. I am not even thinking of such minor absurdities as the fixation on bodily effluvia and odors (thus the Nazi maid in An American Dream, whom the hero possesses anally, exudes “a thin high constipated smell”; Ingrid, the German bargirl who initiates Harry, has “a thin avaricious smell . . . stingy, catlike”), which reached its apogee in Ancient Evenings. More troublesome is the shopworn mysticism that Mailer keeps peddling as brand new; in the Egyptian novel, and again here, it takes the form of a dualism as hoary as Zoroastrianism (Ormazd versus Ahriman) and as recent as Freudianism (superego versus id). It becomes particularly obstreperous and tiresome in Harlot’s Ghost, where Kittredge keeps evolving—for the C.I.A., no less, but also for her own and Harry’s delectation—a theory of two principles in human nature, the masculine Alpha and the deeper, feminine Omega.
Long before the story—whose two manuscripts even bear the labels Alpha and Omega—is over, so much has been subjected to the Alpha-Omega treatment that we begin to empathize with dough at the mercy of the cookie cutter. Hardly has Mailer uttered a powerful epigram, such as “Irrationality is the only great engine of history,” and already he is off on “I see the Company [ C.I.A. ] as one huge Alpha and Omega.”
It is not easy to be sure that Mailer’s much-headlined life doesn’t color one’s judgment, but the author of Harlot’s Ghost does come across as a punch-drunk writer trying to outbox all competition, real or imaginary. Who else would commit to print such writing as “Miami, soft as a powderpuff, murderous as a scorpion, lay suspended like Nirvana”? Or, featuring that favorite among his many archaisms, inversion: “Sex on marijuana was bizarre. Large and occult was its arena. Beautiful were the curves of the belly and breast, and eloquent was the harmonium of universal sex.” And much, much more, down to such unidiomatic hiccupings as “You are not witting to Swedish chirurgery?”
So, too, Mailer here espouses just about all known and several unknown forms of fiction: Bildungsroma, epistolary novel, diary novel, phone-call novel, gossip-column novel, philosophico-political novel, pornographic novel and adventure story rotate into our field of vision. He comes closest to another highly gifted, overexuberant ex-Harvard man, Thomas Wolfe, whose voluminousness he certainly has. What he lacks is his editor. HARLOT MILITANT
“I would remind you,” said Harlot, “that the true force of the Russians has little to do with military strength. We are vulnerable to them in another way. . . . For the Russians are able to get their licks in on whatever is left of the Christian in many a rich swine. It goes so deep—this simple idea that nobody on earth should have too much wealth. That’s exactly what’s satanic about Communism. It trades on the noblest vein in Christianity. It works the great guilt in us. At the core, we Americans are even worse than the English. We’re drenched in guilt. We’re rich boys, after all, with no background, and we’re playing around the world with the hearts of the poor. . . . The Reds, not us, are the evil ones, and so they are clever enough to imply that they are in the true tradition of Christ. . . . The Russians know how to merchandise one crucial commodity: Ideology. Our spiritual offering is finer, but their marketing of ideas proves superior. Here, those of us who are serious, tend to approach God alone, each of us, one by one, but the Soviets are able to perform the conversion en masse. That is because they deliver the commonweal over to man, not God. A disaster. God, not man, has to be the judge. I will always believe that. I also believe that even at my worst, I am still working, always working, as a soldier of God.”—From “Harlot’s Ghost.”
 John Simon, “The Company They Keep,” The New York Times (September 29, 1991).