Mailer novel takes espionage as a metaphor for contemporary political life

October 06, 1991|By George Grella

HARLOT'S GHOST.

Norman Mailer.

Random House.

1,334 pages. $30. Throughout his long and distinguished career, Norman Mailer has occupied a virtually unique place in American letters: the author as public person. Because he has never shrunk from controversy nor from loud and highly visible self-exposure, this position sometimes has exposed him to scorn and ridicule. If he has trumpeted his successes, he also has not sought to hide his failures in some obscure corner of the arena -- whatever he has done, right or wrong, he has displayed considerable courage.

His literary achievement rests on a large body of often brilliant work, including fiction, contemporary history, journalism, polemic, sportswriting and cultural commentary. One of the outstanding stylists of our time, he has written powerfully and informatively about subjects as diverse as war, crime, politics, space technology, boxing, murder and sex. On top of that, he is the only American novelist to campaign for mayor of New York City -- and, as he has confessed, has always had his eye on the White House.

The author is, moreover, very much of a piece -- Mailer the writer closely resembles Mailer the public man; if he has been running for president all his life, he has also, like another Ahab, obsessively pursued his own White Whale in the form of that rather old-fashioned concept, the Great American Novel. His latest book, like several previous efforts, is yet another magnum opus in a series of brave and perilous quests to conquer that grand object. Judging by his accomplishment in fiction over the last decade, and certainly by his new novel, that quarry still eludes him.

"Harlot's Ghost" is an enormous book by any standards, more than 1,300 pages of historical fiction about, of all things, the Central Intelligence Agency. Like some spy novelists, the author seems to believe that the practice of espionage provides an apt metaphor for contemporary political life -- certainly as appropriate as, say, whaling was for Melville -- so he treats us to a detailed fictionalization of several decades of recent American history from the perspective of intelligence-gathering and international intrigue.

LTC The novel actually is the immensely long, yet only partial confession/memoir of Herrick Hubbard, one of those quintessential Ivy League WASPs who traditionally staff the CIA and the State Department (one of them even made president). Hubbard belongs to a dynasty of spies, the core family of the book that includes his father, Cal; his godfather, Hugh Montague (code name Harlot); and his beloved cousin Kittredge, who also is Montague's wife. In the endless course of the novel we also encounter a huge supporting cast from what often is called real life, including virtually every important name in American culture since World War II.

In contrast with the CIA's actual sordid history of incompetence balanced with malice, and haunted by psychotic patriotism and paranoiac anti-communism, "Harlot's Ghost" suggests a benign view of that feckless organization, employing a grandiose vision of the battle between Christianity and communism, good and evil, to justify its generally squalid machinations. Herrick Hubbard, whose obtuseness represents a good argument against years of aristocratic inbreeding, sums up the novel's misperceptions by showing one of the major characters, E. Howard Hunt, as a daring and ambitious patriot even though he has entered history as one of the chief clowns of the Watergate circus.

In its voluminous details the novel also reflects the myriads of subjects that have obsessed Norman Mailer for decades. He finds in the conflict between America and Russia an expression of his Manichean view of a world split between God and Satan, a neat theological foundation for espionage. In the involvement of the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia in a conspiracy to kill Fidel Castro (everybody's bete noire in the book) and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he can confront matters as diverse as the perfectly justified paranoia of contemporary life and his own complex feelings about Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans and Catholicism in general.

Other characteristic Mailer touches reappear, including his naive equation of sex with sin and some familiar corollary notions about homosexuality, transsexualism and anal intercourse. As in American Dream" and "Tough Guys Don't Dance," he mixes sex with the supernatural, madness with magic, and comes up with numerous theories about cancer, which remains for him the symbolic disease of our time. The book in fact starts out, as the title promises, as a dark and exciting ghost story in the spirit of the Hawthorne romances he has imitated, before it degenerates into a tedious rehash of a lot of very well known history.

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