On Nov. 10, distinguished American author Norman Mailer died at the age of 84.
As many have noted, Mailer’s quest was to write the “Great American Novel,” an odyssey most reviewers believe Mailer never achieved despite many important and pivotal novels. In 1991, one of these was Harlot’s Ghost, a hefty tome that might have been the Great American Spy Novel—but not quite. As discussed in my Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (2005):
. . . By the 1990s, the history of modern espionage seemed worthy of a major epic explored by a major author, and Norman Mailer's best-selling 27th book, Harlot's Ghost (1991), was just that.
Covering the history of the CIA from its inception to 1963, Harlot's Ghost was told in the first person by fictional agent Harry Hubbard, a son of a former OSS operative who remained in the higher echelons of the CIA. Harry seemed predestined for spycraft. As a child, he drew pictures of underground cities. He was groomed from a young age by both his father and his Godfather, high-ranking intelligence officer Hugh Montigue, code-named "Harlot."
The world of men with secret lives gave Mailer a number of levels to explore, including the psychological and religious. For example, Hubbard keeps the secrets of his life by using microfilm and a special reader to look over his written memories. For Mailer, spycraft was a metaphor for personal relationships as when Hubbard equates jamming Soviet radio broadcasts with repressing writing about his marriage to Kitteridge, the widow to Harlot with whom Hubbard has carried on a long-term affair via secret correspondence.
From the beginning of his training through his early years as an agent, Hubbard reflected on his changing identity in a climate of mistrust and paranoia. For example, during his first assignment in Berlin, he spends all his time protecting the truth about one of his early blunders from a supervisor focused on internal investigations. Assigned to a station in Uruguay--a setting far from the center of the Cold War--Hubbard learns about spying and diplomacy from his supervisor, E. Howard Hunt. Far from a life of dangerous action, Hubbard observes Hunt enjoying life with government officials. In Uruguay, the games were largely of agents watching each other's embassies and playing tricks on each other simply to confuse observers wondering who was sleeping with whom. There were games in the "Clubland" tradition--chess and polo--but the great game was sex with operatives on both sides trading partners described as priestesses, prostitutes, and transsexuals.
Religious allusions are a continual motif in the story beginning with descriptions of Hubbard's father as a cross between "a deacon and a swashbuckler." In a realistic world populated by the likes of Allen Dulles, Fidel Castro, and William Casey, men seek alternate selves as an honorable way of life. The agency is portrayed as "America's church," both holding the country's secrets and bearing its values. Misdeeds within the CIA are evaluated as either venial or mortal sins.
In the second half of the novel, Hubbard is based in Miami and becomes involved with the Kennedy administration's obsession with Cuba. More a privileged recorder of high-level sexual shenanigans and inter-departmental turf wars than secret agent, Hubbard recounts the history of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis from various points of view including correspondence and alleged wiretap transcripts of historical figures from Kennedy to Frank Sinatra. Along the way, insightful observations pepper the multi-track narrative. For example, Hubbard reports that, for him, intelligence can be defined as "whose will is stamped on which facts." Hubbard liked spy novels as, in life, plots were never complete. Written over seven years, with over 1,295 pages including a lengthy bibliography and notes, perhaps the most surprising words end the book--"To be continued." Incomplete indeed.
Harlot's Ghost can be seen as one representative of the most important literary shift in the 1990s. Tom Clancy had made the device of multiple storylines in any work almost mandatory; after the break-up of the Soviet Union, this style widened to bring history into complex stories. On one level, such books acted as evaluations of the Cold War, allowing experienced agents to look back over their careers to unearth the meaning of their lives. On another, the idea of multi-generational storylines allowed both serious fiction and Hollywood blockbusters to exploit the device of seasoned mentors bringing new generations into the covert world.
Despite all this, I think one novel trumps Harlot’s Ghost for title as the best American spy novel to date—a discussion of this is in my “Don DeLillo's Libra-- America's Best Spy Novel?” posted at