THE LAST BOOK I READ was Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a fictionalized history of the early CIA, published in 1991, just as the Cold War was coming to a rather spectacular end. I read it over the visceral objections I felt toward Mailer as a person. I’d never read any of his novels, but his reputation was too big and in some ways too ugly to ignore. I knew, for example, that he regularly picked fights with feminists, that he had tried, in various ways, to out-macho Hemingway, and that he had stabbed his second wife nearly to death in 1960 and felt famously little contrition for it. Most critics assume it is fitting—de rigeur, even—to draw a cold distinction between the artist and his art. One doesn’t stick on Shakespeare’s purience, for example, if the task at hand is to air a theory on Lear’s existential irony. P.G. Wodehouse is a loveable master of farce, his writings utterly innocent of politcs, but in 1941 he really did walk into a Berlin radio studio and broadcast what can only be decribed as Nazi propaganda.
It is one thing to discover such things in retrospect, after one has read good books by flawed men. But as I said, I disliked Mailer going in to Harlot’s Ghost. If I am not quite able to maintain the critic‘s serene neglect of the author’s personal flaws, it is at least in part because I believe the artist and his art are of a piece. Nietzsche reminds us there is an essential bond between the two: “It is the work of the artist,” he wrote, “that invents the man who created it. ‘Great men,’ as they are venerated, are subsequent pieces of minor fiction.” Thus I cannot help but fear that I will glimspe Mailer the moral wreck flitting through the pages of everything he wrote, no matter how diverting the stories might be.
All that said, I was still prepared to find a great novel in Harlot’s Ghost. Its formidable length—1,200 pages—and weighty topic—the influence of elite, secretive powerbrokers on the American national identity—suggest that Harlot could birth a modern day Balzac, as it seems intended to do. And it almost does, rolling out an engrossing portrait of America’s cultural history in an era when—we didn’t know it yet—culture wars were starting to eclipse our political discourse. An American citizen today cannot read Harlot’s Ghost without feeling, as Thomas Mann did, that history is all the more luminous for being recent. A distance of some few decades reveals that one’s childhood contained great events which were able, at the time, to masquerade as non-entities because of our proximity to them. I had this feeling often while reading Harlot’s Ghost.
The plot is both simple and complex. On one hand it is simply a Bildungsroman that tells the story of Hal Hubbard’s upbringing among connected Northeastern Wasps and a career full of louche scenes and moral compromises made possible by the CIA. His icily distant father, a career spy, treats Hal as one would imagine Hemingway treating his sons, occasionally summoning them to a bar to warn them, tersely, away from the sins of unmanliness and to recommend flyfishing spots in Idaho.
Harlot’s plot is also, perhaps unnecessarily, complex, featuring an epilogue as prologue and using an extended flashback to advance most of the narrative. As the action opens, Hubbard’s life, seen from its midpoint, is (almost literally) imploding around him. He is driving home at midnight from a lovers’ tryst and almost crashes on an icy road. Mastering himself, he arrives to find his ancient castle of a house (grandly named “the Keep”) in rural Maine has been staked out by CIA men, his wife Kittredge, an off-balance, ivory-skinned, raven-haired beauty who sees ghosts, is hiding deep inside, just apprised of dreadful news. Which is this: Hubbard‘s Olympian, sage-like CIA mentor Hugh Tremont Montegue—Kittredge’s ex-husband—has been found dead near Washington. Unhinged, Kittredge flees with an old rival of Hubbard’s. Hubbard burns the Keep down, before flying off to Moscow carrying the microfiche documents that we are led to believe will reveal how things came to such an awful pass.
But before summing up the story’s main events, I should point out that Mailer’s feminist critics will not have to wait long to find their nemesis in top form. In the opening scenes, Hubbard’s inner monologue as he navigates the icy roads homeward concerns his decision to bed a friendly, fleshy waitress from a nearby truckstop. The choice is an unnusal one in light of Hubbard’s sacred regard for his formidably beautiful wife, who also happens to be a specialist in theoretical psychoanalysis. Women are so great, Hubbard (and, we suspect, Mailer) raphsodizes, because they come in so many types of sex object. Kittredge the impossible beauty, locked away in her castle, is a font of holy sacrament. I once heard a Jesuit priest opine that sex could be a kind of prayer: I suppose this is something like what Hubbard/Mailer has in mind for Kittredge. Chloe the booby waitress is, and can only be, great for a lusty romp. It is a crime against aesthetics, Hubbard pleads, to make her keep her clothes on. With so much game afield, come on girls, you can’t expect us to choose, can you?
But back to the plot. Hubbard is groomed by Montegue (codenamed Harlot), recruited into the Agency, and after learning a few special warfare skills at the Farm, he sets out to Berlin Station. There he learns that there are underground bars where you can urinate on a tied-up man and that the CIA’s preferred spying partner in West Germany is Reinhard Gehlen, a former Third Reich military intelligence officer who brought a sizeable network of ex-Nazis with him when he approached the CIA in friendship after World War II. Both discoveries seem to say something about a good spy’s need to take his sources where he can find them. And so begins Hubbard’s education in what spies must do to advance a higher cause. The moral license stamped by deep officialdom enables strange new pleasures, he finds. “Is there any state more agreeable than living and working like a wicked angel?” he muses, as one supposes, most spies do early on.
After Berlin Hubbard is ordered to Montevideo, Uruguay. One might have expected it to be a quiet posting, but Hubbard discovers that his government is busily containing Communism at all points on the globe, and his pampas backwater is no exception. It is awash with Soviet spies and Latin revolutionaries. Hubbard learns Spanish, has an affair with a superior’s wife, and starts the long epistolary relationship with Kittredge that lays the groundwork for their eventual betrayal of Harlot. Intelligence professionals will find this section trying, not for its longeur, but for the rank implausibility of Hubbard’s casual disclosure of highly classified information to Kittredge, in letters no less, and for no higher cause than flirtation. I suppose Mailer is using this device to illustrate how elites presume themselves exempt from the usual rules, but it simply does not jibe with reality. High officials might occasionally leak vetted secrets for an intended effect (I surmise), but the working stiffs in the world of intelligence don’t go sloshing around classified information at the risk of their careers, as Mailer would have us believe Hubbard does.
From Montevideo Hubbard is assigned to Miami, where his spy games start setting hooks into historical events. Not only is he deeply involved in preparing the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he is also running sources so sensitive that he embarks on a professional seduction of a flight attendant who is also sleeping with JFK and considering sleeping with a mob boss who may or may not be helping Camelot gear up for its Cuban adventure. Needless to say, this effort is the one that relieves Hubbard of his last delusions about his employer and whether all is well with the men moving its levers. But he stays with the Agency, because he has become a good spy, which makes him not quite the right fit for life on the outside.
In the end Harlot’s Ghost does succeed as a great morality tale even if it is not a great novel. It has, as great morality tales must, a defining moment—something of a surprise in a book of 1,200 pages. In the pivotal passage Montague the arch spymaster has finished dispensing all his collected wisdom on tradecraft to Hubbard; now he is positioned to reveal what the CIA is ultimately for. The Agency does not merely gather the information that will keep the U.S. power elite a step ahead of their competitors. The CIA’s ultimate duty, Harlot intimates, is to “become the mind of America.” If this notion sounds like it is based in a “standard” conspiracy theory, its verbiage should be compared with the rather flashier concepts underwriting U.S. security services‘ ambitions to achieve “total information dominance” or some other such superlative. No appeal to skullduggery is needed to make moral sense of Harlot’s revelation. What would it mean for the CIA to become America’s mind? Simply that most of our citizens would come to view the world primarily in terms of threats. This perspective is a necessary one for the CIA, but for our citizens on Main Street, it is a wholesale surrender to fear, a retreat from the hopeful, bountiful world which the fully human person ought to inhabit. And we seem to be partway there. Mailer could hardly have asked for a better recommendation for his novel, than that someday it would illumine us in flagrante delicto, seeking and longing to be like the CIA. Do we not see danger everywhere? Do we not profess that we will take any measures, consort with any actors no matter how loathesome to eliminate those who hate our freedoms?
Mailer nicely anticipates the younger Bush’s formulation “by any means necessary” when he puts these words in the mouth of Harlot, describing an earlier life-or-death battle: “We‘re in an ultimate struggle with the Russians, and that means we have to use everything. Not only the kitchen sink, but the vermin that come with the sink.”
This theme is where my appreciation of Harlot‘s Ghost runs deepest. I read the book very much as a sequel to Gore Vidal’s Empire and The Golden Age, novels that document how America first blundered into militarism and then consciously chose to have a national security state rather than the republic we had before, which, if not paradise, at least did not seek war as its natural condition. Mailer, for all his faults, joins Vidal, heroically, I have to say, in forcing us to acknowledge the deliberate choices and willful delusions that led to this pass. We chose military supremacy as the measure of our greatness, and the choice is on the record. You may read it in the National Security Act of 1947. If novels like Mailer’s can help us see that the way is still clear to win back the roads, schools and hospitals that military primacy cost us, then long live such novels.
My main quarrel with Harlot’s Ghost as great literature is that, in many places, it is not even good literature. One unfriendly reviewer remarked that Mailer needed a better editor to slim his tome down. I feel he could have benefited even from a poorly turned out writers‘ workshop. Such ghastly phrases; something could have been done! Before I get to cases, though, it is worth recalling some principles of novel writing. Martin Amis holds that each sentence of a novel should be perfect. And why not? It is an inhuman task, but one routinely accomplished by the masters. Proust, Dostoevsky, James, maybe even Amis himself—they all go on a great length, but without ever giving the reader pause to wonder whether what is happening behind the word flow is less than sublime.
Mailer, for his part, is forever trying out blustering, bizarre similes and metaphors. He should altogether flee situations where the intensity of a thing calls out for a figure of speech to give it scale. At their most benign, these situations involve him in curiosities like, “Drunk, miserable, hollow as a gourd, I could hear the silences where unseen judges gather.” I cannot for the life of me work out what this means, but maybe I’ve just never been that drunk. Sometimes the effect is just blankly banal, as in, “A wall arises within my memory as black as our incapacity to know where death will lead us.” Or: “It started to snow, and I felt as if I were in the last reel of a movie about Alaska.” But there are also too many jagged errors or plodding missteps. Hubbard alludes thus to the ubiquitous smell of barbeque in Montevideo: “It gets into everything you eat, fish, chicken, eggs, all those great galloping beef on the pampas.” Enough. Beef simply do not gallop. Nor do they trot. Prodded or frightened they can work up to an ungainly jog, a motion which, in a group, can impress one with fear, but cattle do not gallop or otherwise move as horses do.
I feel slightly small spirited ending on quibbles such as these, but it is perhaps due to my disappointment over what Mailer might have achieved with Harlot’s Ghost. It is a truly prohpetic novel in its attempt to warn the American people that they might not wish to have a secret army doing God’s work across the globe. It is also full of historical insights, for example into the role played by JFK’s valorization of expertise in expanding shadowy services—like the CIA’s—done for the sake of national security. It is a novel that sets out, as I said, to be Balzacian, and in long stretches it seems to succeed. All the more discouraging, then, when its flaws remind one that the tale is not in the hands of a master. A very good novel but not a great one.