Harlot’s Ghost, by Norman Mailer

Book 29
Harlot’s Ghost is Norman Mailer’s epic novel of the CIA. It is also my Moby Dick.

Ten years ago, when I used the library to check out books, I took this home. I started it, loved it, and for some reason I put it down. I renewed it, then put it down again so I had to return it. This is one reason that I stopped checking out books from the library.

A few years later, I found it again on eBay, so I picked it up. I started over, loved it and put it down again. It sat on my shelf for years. I picked it up again this summer and started over.

The main character, Harry Hubbard, is second generation CIA. His father and his godfather are both well-known and old school. Harry is cool because he is not a super-star, not a loser, and the nepotism thing rolls off his back.

We learn at the beginning that Harry ends up having an affair with his godfather, Harlot’s, wife Kittredge. And after that, he marries her. Harlot ends up dead – suicide, murder or fake for the purpose of defection. And the wife runs off with some other guy. I am all jazzed with the “what happened here?”

Then we get the history.

The history of the CIA, and the lifestyle that Mailer presumes, is really well done. The politics and the competition with the FBI are a common thread throughout. The theme, however, is that of the dual life. Both as a matter of espionage and a matter of human nature. Kittredge has a theory of the two selves, Alpha and Omega. The theory is too complex and heavy-handed for my taste, so I didn’t bother to understand it fully, but the point is that we all have two sides to our nature. Almost two totally different personalities. While Kittredge layed the psychology on really thick, I do appreciate the concept.

Anyway, we follow Harry through a thousand-plus pages of his adventures including many historical figures. Unlike what I imagine to be the target audience, I was bored to tears by the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis. However, one of Harry’s assignments is to get into the pants of a character clearly based on Judith Campbell so as to keep up with the dirt on the Mafia and, to an extent, candidate Kennedy. That was fun..for awhile.

Perhaps in our post Cold War-whatever, I just can’t appreciate the drama. But what really ticked me off is that at the end – which was a To Be Continued that wasn’t – we still don’t know what really happened to Harlot, or Kittredge. Or why that one guy died or what the hell Dix Butler was up to. It was really abrupt, as if Mailer got bored and dropped it.

I’m glad I finally finished it, anyway.

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