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Harlot’s Ghost

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mailer has produced a massive tome, based on a close reading of nearly one hundred books on the CIA as well as on his own vivid imagination, which often calls upon themes and characters he has rehearsed in several works of fiction and nonfiction, including speculations on the murder of Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway’s suicide, and the nature of Fidel Castro’s heroism.

Mailer’s thesis is that a CIA operative is by definition a deceiver, a man who is always playing more than one role, an actor whose sense of reality is constantly shifting, making it difficult to maintain loyalties and friendships, never sure of his own ground. Harry Hubbard, the son of a fabled CIA agent, worries that he is not “tough enough” and takes on risky ventures such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. As a matter of survival within the agency he finds himself acting as a double agent—at one point reporting to both his mentor, Harlot, and his father, Cal.

Through Harry’s letters, diaries, and first-person narrative, Mailer manages to cover most of the dramatic events involving the CIA form 1955 to 1963. This very long novel is burdened with too much learning and too little plot—no detail is too trivial to include as long as it impinges on Harry’s consciousness. There are some wonderfully realized characters (E. Howard Hunt and William King Harvey), but they do not quite redeem Mailer’s turgid prose, and his inability to complete the novel in one volume (the last page is marked “to be continued") suggests a lack of discipline.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. September 29, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 15, 1991, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review September 29, 1991, p. 1.

National Review XLIII, November 4, 1991, p. 54.

The New York Times Book Review XCVI, September 29, 1991, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVII, November 4, 1991, p. 113.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 16, 1991, p. 48.

Time. CXXXVIII, September 30, 1991, p. 48.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 18, 1991, p. 20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, September 29, 1991, p. 1.