Sunday, December 17, 2017

Harlot's Ghost (1991)

The last words in Norman Mailer's massive CIA novel are "to be continued." In many ways Harlot's Ghost does feel like just half the tale, covering activities in "the Company" from 1955 to 1963. The main focus is the Kennedy administration, primarily Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, and its aftermath. The Kennedy assassination is a convenient milestone on which to end it. But the career of the young narrator—Herrick Hubbard, though he goes by many different names—is just starting as the novel ends. Mailer had certainly figured out big tome dynamics with The Executioner's Song, and Harlot's Ghost is actually a remarkably quick and easy read. It patiently develops the skills of spying, called tradecraft, by showing Hubbard's education and work in action. Slowly, the novel turns and points into history, as the cast grows to include all manner of real people: E. Howard Hunt, Allen Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, "Jack" Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Fidel Castro, William Harvey. All and more have speaking parts (if only, some of them, gleaned via surveillance transcripts). Hunt probably even qualifies as a semi-major character. By the time they show up, Mailer has established a level of authorial credibility and we accept them as all else. Hubbard goes to school, and then on to assignments in D.C., Berlin, Uruguay for several years, and ultimately (in terms of the novel) Miami and Cuba. The account of the Bay of Pigs mission is detailed and vivid, though from an unexpectedly insulated point of view. In many ways it's fair to call the novel epistolary, built primarily on correspondence and documents. Hubbard is always the author and never pretends to knowing more than he can provide evidence for. But he has lots of evidence to provide. He's often in the right place at the right time (or wrong, depending on your view), but again, Mailer establishes the ground early and well. There's a corny romance and ham-handed philosophical conceits woven inextricably into the narrative, the usual we've come to expect from Mailer in those realms. I don't know how far he made it with a second volume, if anywhere at all, but I wanted to read it right away after I finished Harlot's Ghost. That's a measure of the kind of spell he is able to cast with this great novel.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Curious how this stacks up against Delillo's Libra? Or Ellroy's American Tabloid? Or is there any other conspiracies that have made so many great novels?