Norman Mailer’s new novel opens with a sequence so good you believe for a moment he may have written the book his friends and critics agreed was inside him. On the coast of Maine, lyrically described, there is a car smash, a house, two women, a ghost, sex, an air of menace and a series of narrative volte-face. The novel promises private lives and public history played out on a vast scale. Its opening has the tempo and richness demanded by its length and the seriousness of its themes.
The sex is important. The main character, Harry Hubbard, a CIA man in late middle age, is married to a woman called Kittredge and has a mistress called Chloe. ‘My mistress’s kisses are like taffy, soft and sticky, endlessly wet. From high school on, Chloe had doubtless been making love with her mouth to both ends of her friends. Her groove was a marrow of good grease.’ Mailer’s descriptions are unreformed by political correctness. Hubbard’s sexual experiences have the author’s characteristic mixture of vigour and disgust. His first encounter with a woman evokes images of marine exhaustion. Mailer’s characters always seem unfortunate in this department: it seems only yesterday we were reading of someone’s ‘meaty lips and sullen greaseworks within’. While there is nothing as abrasive here as the scene in The Time of Her Time when the narrator induces orgasm in his lover by a mixture of physical and racial abuse, the sex in Harlot’s Ghost is stronger on male desperation than female sensibility.
Harry’s early sexual desires are more for men than for women, and Mailer writes convincingly of his bisexual lust. From an author who got into a brutal fist-fight with two soldiers who had merely suggested his dog was queer, this must have taken some doing. When Harry’s long-preserved virginity is lost in Berlin it is only after he has turned down the opportunity of sodomising his impressive colleague Dix Butler. This is a decision he is made to regret.
Throughout this long – very long – account of the CIA’s activities in the 1950s and 60s, Mailer uses sex as a counterpoint to his tale of pointless intrigue. Harry’s wife, Kittredge, is ‘turned’ by him from her first husband, then turned again. The fact that her first husband is code-named ‘Harlot’, the spook of the book’s title, and is the most sinister agent in the story, adds a certain piquancy to her betrayal. It is neat, too, that Harlot (real name Hugh Montague) is Harry’s godfather and that Harry in turn becomes godfather to Harry and Kittredge’s small son. One looks increasingly to these human and sexual elements of the story as not just counterpoint to, but relief from the enormous weight of detailed CIA operations.
The first third of the book gives an account of the young Harry’s induction into the CIA. Liquor, tail and handguns are the highlights of the job, but Mailer marks down his main theme early on: the closed world in which these top ivy league brains are working is self-serving and pointless. Although one, at the end, turns out to be the man who unmasked Philby, for the most part their work is not in the interest of the state or security; it serves merely to perpetuate its own paranoid bureaucracy.
Well, we have been here before, and although Mailer’s CIA is less camp than John le Carre’s ‘Circus’, its activities are recounted at far greater documentary length. Harry’s work in Montevideo, described, for no obvious reason, in letters to Kittredge, is humdrum stuff. By the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Harry is senior enough to come close to history and for us to sense Mailer’s 30-year-old disgust at his country’s duplicitous bungling. But there is far too much cypher work, code-names in wearisome upper-case letters and routine reports. When Jack Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Allen Dulles and other characters from the period make their appearance there is no sense of embarrassment, as there would be with a lesser writer, but there is little excitement either. Are they in with the Mob, with each other, with anyone at all? Perhaps; perhaps not. It scarcely seems to matter.
Not to us, anyway. This book, which is often more history than novel, will be read with interest by Bob Woodward, author of Veil, a leaden-footed amble through CIA operations of the 1980s. It will be read by Sinatra’s lawyers. It looks as though Bobby Kennedy’s lawyers may already have read it: a promising anecdote about him peters out on page 752 of the proof edition with the words ‘COPY MISSING’.
For those looking for a novel in a more usual sense of the word the rewards are disappointingly meagre from such a huge book. Kittredge, Harry’s wife, is a powerful and interesting character (apart from an improbable but thematically convenient thesis she is writing on the ‘duality’ of the human mind), but she is hardly ever on stage. The sense of place, excellently evoked in Maine, is only fleetingly given in Miami and Cuba. This is a shame. Mailer’s public career of knifings, scandal and show trials has sometimes tended to make one overlook his old-fashioned politesse towards the reader. In Harlot’s Ghost it seems that he himself has often forgotten what a good novelist he is, or that he no longer cares.
Once midway through and once at the end of the book Mailer asks what for him is the big question. ‘Whom? In the immortal words of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “Whom, Whom does this game benefit?”’ Whom indeed. Mailer has described the processes of the CIA but has given little suggestion of a purpose. In fact his question is not new. He posed it first in the Fourth Presidential Paper (1963) in an open letter to Kennedy and Castro about the Bay of Pigs. His answer then was that the beneficiaries of the CIA’s dishonesty were those who wanted to perpetuate the idea of a credible Communist threat on America’s doorstep. ‘All the totalitarians of the world benefited by the Bay of Pigs and the missiles which followed.’
Thirty years later Mailer has come no closer to a real explanation. He seems less clear about who is on his side now. Gone are the white negroes, existential heroes, hipsters and Marxian anarchists; gone is the creeping to Castro. Just as the youthful exaltation of these heroes has given way to caution, so the sure identification of the enemy has become blurred. ‘All the totalitarians of the world’ is a phrase with enough rhetorical swagger to have satisfied Mailer in 1963; but it will not do any longer.
Mailer seems worried, too, by a nagging sense of patriotism. Even at his most declamatory he believed in what he called Western civilisation and Western values. In this novel, it is the means of protecting American interests that he abhors, but he has little criticism to offer of the people, their country or their values. All this leaves the reader as bemused as the author, who signs off with the words ‘To be continued’, as though in acknowledgement of his failure to explain. Harlot’s Ghost will be read with interest by those in the service; but as a novel it is onerous and exasperating.