At sixty‑eight Norman Mailer may be stiff in the joints, but he's not pulling any punches, as Christopher Hitchens discovers. His massive new novel takes on the CIA, male bonding, and the WASP establishment
Norman Mailer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with Hubert.
In February 1973, Norman Mailer threw himself a lavish fiftieth birthday party at the Four Seasons in New York. The invitations spoke of "an announcement of national importance (major)" that would be made at the end of the bash. Figures as varied as Andy Warhol and Bernardo Bertolucci turned up, along with then senators Jacob Javits and Eugene McCarthy, and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. After dinner, Mailer rose to divulge his plan. There should be, he said, a "fifth estate," a citizens' action committee to monitor the CIA and the FBI and to investigate their complicity in the murder of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. Alas for the project ‑"a democratic secret police keeping tabs on Washington's secret police" ‑ Mailer got himself hog‑whimpering drunk and emptied the room amid lurid scenes of cussing and head banging. "Fifth estate" blew up on the ramp.
Since then, and even though this fiasco took place on the eve of the hair‑curling Watergate revelations, Mailer's attention has appeared to wander from the domain of paranoia and conspiracy. Never afraid to mix it up in the real world with such taut‑edged subjects as capital punishment and with such risky acquaintances as Jack Henry Abbott, in his fiction Mailer had nevertheless limited himself to antiquity (Ancient Evenings) or funky bits of the American landscape (Tough Guys Don't Dance). Meanwhile, his involvement with the right‑thinking folks at American PEN and with a succession of what might be called "good causes" has led to rumors of respectability, even to "grand old man of letters" profiles. Was the outlaw by any chance entering a Golden Pond era?
No such luck, thank Christ. For much of the past decade, Mailer has been readying an immense novel about the fetid, murderous subculture of American intelligence. Harlot's Ghost (Random House) ‑so vast, as Mailer told me with a grin, that "it's twice as long as Remembrance of Things Past, and I'll be happy if it's half as good" (well, who wouldn't?) ‑is an epic of the covert world. Its publication happens to coincide with renewed interest in the Kennedy assassination and revived inquiries into the life and work of the late William Casey, but this fortuitous circumstance is minor. For Mailer, the CIA is always important because it represents the condensed, perverse mentality that lies at the heart, or in the brain, of the United States. I was lucky enough to be his first interviewer on the novel and to catch him before he could get weary of the same old questions. But first, some guidance on the book itself, which is only part one of the story and which concludes with the words "to be continued."
Harlot is the spy name of Hugh Montague, a leading CIA intellectual and executive who is, according to Mailer, "inspired by but not modeled on" the disgraced James Jesus Angleton, the celebrated mole hunter who never recovered from being duped by Kim Philby. For Harlot, "the Agency" is a priesthood, the keeper of the cold‑war flame, and insurance against national decadence. His godson, Harry Hubbard, who narrates the book, is among other things a CIA "ghostwriter" who at both official and unofficial levels becomes Harlot's biographer. The story is told chronologically "straight," from Harry's recruitment out of the WASP education system in the early 1950s through the Berlin crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the murder of JFK, and raises the curtain on the disaster of Vietnam and the revenge of Watergate.
Mailer has read an enormous library of CIA literature, from the memoirs of the defector Philip Agee to the bluff testimony of the former directors, and he adds quite a bibliography of nonfiction at the end as well as a glossary of significant terms and phrases. As a result, long passages of the novel are fictionally "straight" also, on the model of traditional espionage stories (though Mailer rightly insists this is not a spy novel), with their attention to detail and authenticity. Honored Mailer themes ‑sodomy, male bonding, rites of passages into manhood, physical confrontation‑ are strongly present but kept under tight, organized control. The whole is a sustained, brilliant attempt to think himself into the mind of a young man, a dedicated WASP, an establishment nonconformist, and a servant of the American holy of holies, national security (no trivial feat for a subversive, bohemian Jew in his late sixties), and to do so, furthermore, in real time. President Kennedy appears under his own name and character, as does the sinister buccaneer E. Howard Hunt. Judith Exner, the moll who bedded JFK, Frank Sinatra, and mob leader Sam Giancana and who thus touched almost all the bases of this book, is only lightly disguised as Modene Murphy.
The novel, which bears the reader along through daunting sweeps of prose, has the energy to do so because it has, in addition to an astonishing cast, a thesis. The thesis is that America has lived under an invisible government composed often of dedicated and intelligent people who really believed that democracy could not be trusted. Could not be trusted, that is to say, not to run up the white flag in the face of communism and atheism. (Religion is repeatedly depicted by Mailer as a prime mover in the secret world and as the moral equivalent of an American ideology.) Mailer, who has often criticized and attacked this protean, tentacled force, is imaginative enough to admire and respect it and to award some of the finest dialogues and soliloquies, as well as some of the most eloquent justifications, to the "enemy" characters.
Our meeting was no debauch. Mailer has given up the booze these days because it affects his joints, and he ruefully showed me a knee bandage, an arthritis bracelet, and a hearing aid. But he was sprightly and combative as he explained that Harlot's Ghost is "really an attempt to make the CIA believable to myself ‑as real in its way as it is to the people who work in it.” Quite early in the action, Harlot warns young recruits against the twin temptations of "the theater of paranoia and the cinema of cynicism," and Mailer, too, sets himself to avoid these two pitfalls.
I decide to ask him first about the origins of Harlot as a name, and he tells me that "sixteen years ago I wrote a piece about the CIA for New York magazine and called it 'A Harlot High and Low,' after the Balzac novel. Here were people who had been very well brought up but who were deliberately doing immoral things and who were in a sense subscribing to the Stalinist philosophy that the end justified the means." I remind him that a British prime minister once described Fleet Street as wanting "power without responsibility ‑the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages," but though this doesn't make a bad fit he insists that Balzac is the true derivation. "The CIA boys are like the sexual rebels of the sixties ‑they did everything they wanted, and then came AIDS."
I wonder if Mailer's own affection for Jack Kennedy, expressed in The Presidential Papers, had anything to do with it. "Yes. The whole genesis of my interest in this was the assassination of Kennedy, because there were so many possibilities. And one of the things that's healthy for democracy is a lack of needless obsession. But JFK is a huge hole in the American head. This book won't solve the Kennedy assassination, but by the end it will show what happens when we admit we can't solve it.
"What kind of wavelength was I on with Kennedy? Well, maybe it was a 10 percent overlap or even a 20 percent overlap, but in my lifetime that's phenomenal for a president. You had the feeling that you could laugh at the same joke. Losing him was like losing an older brother; the world is never the same, and America has never been the same since. And then there were all the later assassinations .
Casting his mind back to the early sixties may have helped Mailer recreate the thought and feeling of a young, semi‑idealistic American of the period, as Harry Hubbard turns out to be. "This isn't a Le Carré‑type novel, it's a young man's education; it's a bildungsroman. One of the things it tried to answer is the question, What do these people do when they're not engaged in spying activities'? In other words, the other half of spy fiction." The solution to this involves Mailer in an immense amount of technical and factual description.” A lot of the novel's about the sheer bureaucracy of the CIA."
Because Hubbard, like many young men in fact and fiction, joined the Agency through a father‑son family tie, Mailer refers to Harlot's Ghost as being in part "a comedy of manners. " He means the incongruous, and often the grotesque, results of mixing well‑bred American boys with covert action in exotic climes. “Hubbard is not a particularly political animal. He's in the CIA because his father was before him. It's his life pursuit, his way of finding himself. Part of the comedy of manners is that he's dealing with political matters he doesn't really understand."
With Mailer, as a rule, depictions of male bonding tend to lead to homoerotic allusion. Harlot's Ghost is no disappointment in this respect ‑there are two rough gay scenes in Berlin that alone are enough to knock your socks off. But is there also some latent connection between homosexuality and espionage, of the kind suggested by writers about Burgess, Blunt, and Maclean? Mailer thinks so, because he responds to the idea that homosexuals have a talent for secrecy, intrigue, danger, and even ‑why not? ‑ betrayal. "Homosexuality is a subtheme in the book. I think it's a key element. And there's also a key irony in the fact that all those hideous rightwing bigots, when they talked about homosexuals in the State Department, weren't entirely off their feed."
This of course makes things difficult for the women in the novel, who never quite know what secrets their husbands and lovers are keeping. It's no bargain to be married to the Agency, as is repeatedly shown. Again, Mailer attributes this to primal fears about male bonding. "Male bonding can drive women insane, and women who fear the worst will declare the worst. They'll be consumed with fear and worry and aggravation about their husbands' being homosexual.” Women play an essential role in the action of Harlot's Ghost and are more than once assumed to have superior skills in the intelligence game, but the narrative traps them in waiting roles. They act as occasional confidantes and advisers as well as constant sources of temptation and disorder.
Mailer believes there is a very American contradiction at the heart of the CIA. "It's the interface between bureaucracy and unprecedented action. The Agency is the only government body that can or will move without precedent, but it's always looking for precedents because so many of its people come from respectable legal backgrounds. Harlot, in other words, embodies the CIA's metaphysic of duty and elitism." I italicize the last phrase because it captures the essence of the novel so exactly ‑far from considering themselves privileged or above the law, CIA operatives see themselves as gifted and exceptional souls taking on a thankless, dirty, underappreciated task.
One of the recurring metaphors in the text is that of a family, of an organization that shelters the orphan or the child of a broken home and gives that person loyalty and context. "Yes,” says Mailer, "it is a family. There are sufficient historical examples of sons going into the Agency. And also, family feels right as an example.” CIA people, of course, prefer to allude more neutrally to "the Company." But like a family, the CIA is more inclined to stress homogeneity. "It's still very WASP. At one point, I have E. Howard Hunt ask Hubbard if there could ever be a Catholic CIA director, and Hubbard replies cautiously that he'd hate to think it wasn't possible. I even have a Jewish CIA man in the book ‑Arnie Rosen.” But by and large, Mailer sees the invisible government as a private extension of the East Coast Anglo establishment.
This leads to a useful digression on Jewishness. James Jesus Angleton, after all, was a classic Anglophile Agency man, but one of the reasons he survived as long as he did was because of his relationship with the Israeli Mossad. Mailer agrees that Israeli intelligence has been vital to the CIA over the years. I ask him a question he's been asked many times before in print but has never to my knowledge answered why won't he visit Israel? "Well, I don't go for a particularly selfish reason, because if I go to Israel all the cargo in my hold will be shaken loose and it'll take years off my life. I'll either like it a lot less or a lot more than I think I will, and in either case it will rearrange my mind… I’ll go one day,” he adds after a pause.
So what about America? "I'm obsessed with the fear of fascism." How's that? "Yes, Yes, I'm really afraid of fascism if we get into a deep economic depression. That's why I'm in favor of muddling along rather than having a confrontation. It's meaningless to be a dissident qua dissident these days, because the world is falling apart, and it's being remade, and we're all fumbling, the Left as well as the Right. I define myself as a left conservative. The Left suffers terribly from complaining all the time. Once or twice a year it should say, Hey, maybe God is a conservative."
Is this a domesticated Norman Mailer? "Listen, Listen, I never left political combat. I just haven't felt recently that I had anything to say that wasn't being said. I needed to think that I had something to point out that others weren't pointing out or seeing.”
When he burst into the glare of attention with his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, it was said of Mailer by a few astute critics that his most powerful character was that of General Cummings, the brooding cryptofascist who looks forward to the victory over Japan so that the real struggle against communism and decadence can get started. Some claimed to detect that the creator had a vicarious sympathy for this invention. But perhaps this is what being a "left conservative” means: having a capacity to empathize with the other. As we are parting, Mailer makes two references. One is to the Dynamite Club, a group of conspiracy buffs and spy writers that he belongs to and that meets regularly to monitor the misdeeds of the secret state. The second is to a recent invitation he'd received from West Point. "I was impressed by the seriousness there and the attention to philosophy, The students all know that their careers can end very abruptly and very violently. I had a great conversation with one of them about a lecture on key words and poetry."
Between the Dynamite Club and West Point there exists the kind of potentially creative tension that obtains between the alpha and the omega of Harlot's Ghost ‑the cultivation of the split personality.” In Intelligence," says Hubbard at one point, "we look to discover the compartmentalization of the heart. We made an in‑depth psychological study once in the CIA and learned to our dismay (it was really horror!) that one‑third of the men and women who could pass our security clearance were divided enough ‑handled properly‑to be turned into agents of a foreign power.” Mailer seems really to have found a subject that is worthy of his own multiple contradictions. Are we too paranoid, as Hubbard asks, or not paranoid enough? Or as Mailer puts it to me, "How could I learn for myself how much is manipulation, how much is plain stupidity and fuckup, and how much is brilliance?" Good, hard, overdue questions.