Mailer, Norman. Harlot’s Ghost. New York: Random, 1991.
Mailer reportedly spent seven years writing this massive novel which treats the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency from the Berlin Airlift to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. What is more surprising than the book’s size is that, despite its size, it closes with the words “To Be Continued.”
As Jonathan Franzen has pointed out in his review in the Jerusalem Post, the novel may have had its germ in Mailer’s 1976 essay, “A Harlot High and Low”, in which he mused on the mindset that characterized the CIA and the reasons for the agency’s apparent involvement in the Watergate break-in. In his review in The Toronto Star, Philip Marchand notes that the title of the essay was also the title of Honore de Balzac’s novel about a prostitute–and that the scope of Mailer’s novel is nothing if not Balzacian.
The framing incident of Harlot’s Ghost is the attempt to establish and maintain a secret source of illegally obtained funds from which the CIA might fund its most controversial extralegal activities. More specifically, the narrative’s premise is that the target of the Watergate break-in was not, in fact, the Democratic National Committee, but the offices of the Federal Reserve Board; the burglars intended to provide the CIA with documents that would enable the agency to anticipate and exploit changes in currency-exchange and lending rates.
The novel’s main character and narrator is an ageing agent named Herrick “Harry” Hubbard, who recounts his life’s story and his thirty-year career in the CIA from the vantage point of the early 1980s. Hubbard’s father, Cal, was also an American intelligence agent, and like all sons who follow their father’s career paths, Hubbard is ambivalent about his career choice. Although he embraced his family’s wealth and privileged position, and respected his father for his manly physicality, Hubbard has come to realize that if he has over-estimated his own abilities and perceptions, he may have also over-estimated his father’s–and by extension, the CIA’s and America’s.
The narrative is presented as Hubbard’s memoir, though it contains all sorts of documents, from personal letters to transcripts taken from surveillance tapes. It is a “secret history” of a clandestine agency, but, of course, to write–never mind to publish–a “secret history” is to risk transforming it into a public record, a paradox which suggests that the author may never have intended it to be “secret” after all. And all of this narrative layering occurs in a novel–a fictional treatment of history which is not, then, a history after all.
The title derives from the fact that Hugh Tremont Montague, Hubbard’s godfather and his mentor within the CIA, has the code name Harlot. (In his review in The Independent, Salman Rushdie has suggested that on a deeper level America may be the harlot and the CIA its “spook.”) Montague, in effect another father figure, is a cunning spy master and a ruthless operator within the agency’s burgeoning bureaucracy. He is driven as much by a conviction of his own superiority as by his political convictions, but in most instances, the two impulses become indistinguishable and amount to a kind of idiosyncratic fanaticism. He belongs to a select group of agents who are empowered to ferret out double-agents. In the end, it becomes clear that his position and personality may have provided him with the perfect cover for serving as a double-agent himself. When his body washes ashore, with the face apparently blown away by a shotgun blast, it is unclear whether he has indeed died or, instead, has simply used his apparent death as a cover for his flight to the Soviet Union. (In his review for The Observer, James Walcott has surmised that the shotgun blast to the face links Mailer to Hemingway as Hubbard is linked to Montague; but whereas that analogy would make Hemingway the harlot and Mailer the ghost, Walcott suggests something a little more paradoxical–that while Mailer has been “ghosting” Hemingway, Hemingway’s ghost has long been shadowing Mailer.)
This ultimate ambiguity about Montague’s fate will convince a reader with a background in the history of U.S. intelligence services that Montague’s story has largely been based on the real-life career of James Jesus Angleton, the highest-ranking, known Soviet “mole” in the CIA. The novel does present cameo appearances by some clearly identified historical figures within the CIA such as John Foster Dulles and E. Howard Hunt, as well as figures on the periphery such as J. Edgar Hoover, Robert F. Kennedy, and even Lenny Bruce. During one of Hubbard’s early postings, in Berlin, his superior, a real historical figure named William Harvey, instructs him to investigate a clerk in Washington who Harvey suspects may be a double-agent. But this particular “clerk” is actually an invention of Montague, an alter-ego for Hubbard that provides him with a cover in investigating possible double-agents.
This motif of double-dealing, double identities, and double-sided circumstances is also represented on a more personal level in Hubbard’s standing as godfather to Montague’s son. When the boy, named Christopher, dies, Montague’s guilt at being unable to protect his son from the world is extended, in effect, to Hubbard. In a more direct betrayal of trust, Hubbard eventually has an affair with Kittredge Montague, Hugh’s wife. It is an act of personal as well as professional usurpation. Moreover, Kittredge, the object of Hubbard’s obsessions, is herself obsessed with the “Alpha-Omega” theory of human personality, which posits that human nature is defined by the tension between competing drives – the masculine and the feminine, loyalty and treachery. As if to provide a full-bodied illustration of this concept, Kittredge is as beautiful and intelligent as she is self-indulgent and conniving. (In a Pynchonesque touch, the framing section of the novel is called “The Omega Manuscript,” and the extended flashback that is the body of the novel is called “The Alpha Manuscript.”)
Although Kittredge divorces Montague and marries Hubbard, she eventually replaces Hubbard himself with Dix Butler, another agent and a very unpleasant character who once, earlier in their careers, tried to seduce Hubbard into a homosexual liaison. In a fashion typical in many Mailer narratives, what appears to be a sort of free-wheeling explosion of human energies, motives, and connections turns out to be, at center, a more implosive mix.
Even as he becomes involved in some of the CIA’s subsequently most maligned covert operations, Hubbard becomes something of a hipster, recognizing that the values and the causes for which he has presumably worked have actually been undermined by his efforts. Rather than providing a bulwark against the largely clandestine forces that would undermine Western institutions, the CIA has itself become a dark force, having much more in common with its antagonists than with its sponsors. In the section treating the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Hubbard recounts his affair with Modene Murphy, whose history as a serial mistress includes interludes with Sam Giancanna, Frank Sinatra, and John F. Kennedy.
Throughout the narrative, there is a religious sub-text. God and country are inextricably linked in the American mythos, and the national destiny has often been described in terms that make it tantamount to a religious mission or crusade. The Puritan conception of the perpetual conflict between starkly differentiated forces of good and evil is transmuted in this Cold War milieu into the conflict between Americanism and Communism. Maintaining one’s idealism in the face of the evidence of one’s own moral compromises and of a broader institutional corruption becomes a measure not of self-delusion or hypocrisy, but of commitment. God the Father is the archetype for all of the father figures in this novel, even if the Judeo-Christian ethos is, at every turn, transformed by ironies into a deepening uncertainty in which even faithlessness becomes too self-assured a choice.
Previous Posts in This Series:
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 1-3: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-1-3/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 4-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/31/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-4-5/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 6-7: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/01/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-6-7/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 8-10: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/04/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-8-10/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 11-13: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/06/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-11-13/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 14-16: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-14-16/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 17-19: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/18/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-17-19/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 20-22: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/25/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-20-22/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 23-25: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/07/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-23-25/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 26-29: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-26-29/
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 30-32: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-30-32/