Born into a family of wealth, prestige, and power, Harry Hubbard, the narrator of Harlot’s Ghost, never imagines that he should do anything but follow in his father Cal’s footsteps and join the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Still, Harry has never been sure of his manhood. Can he measure up to his father’s record? Having hero- worshiped Cal throughout his childhood, Harry can remember only a few incidents in which he has captured his father’s attention—a skiing accident, for example, when Harry broke a leg but steeled himself not to cry out during a long, jolting trip to the doctor. Cal, realizing his mistake in taking an unprepared Harry out to the slopes, calls himself a “fathead,” and Harry endears himself to his father by his stoicism and his gallant refusal to accept his father’s self-criticism.
Cal arranges for Harry’s initiation into the world of male adventure by persuading Hugh Tremont Montague (“Harlot”) to act as Harry’s godfather and mentor. Montague takes the teenage Harry rock climbing, and while he admires Harry’s courage, he advises him to give it up, for Harry will try to overcome his every weakness, and Montague suspects this could result in Harry’s risking death.
By the time of his college years at Yale, Harry knows for certain that he is destined for the CIA. Receiving the call from Montague, he enthusiastically plunges into CIA training, simultaneously falling in love with Montague’s wife, Kittredge, a brilliant psychologist—also working for the CIA—who has developed a theory she is anxious to explore: Every human being has two personalities, an Alpha and an Omega. She does not mean merely a split personality but two completely formed selves which may or may not be in sync with each other.
The novel works endless variations on the Alpha/Omega theme, interpreting both individual personalities and historical events in its terms. Kittredge herself, for example, is deeply in love with Montague and yet devotes an entire other self to Harry, confiding in him secrets and speculations that she never shares with her husband. This personal disloyalty and deception is also worked on a vaster scale in the CIA itself. Harry, for example, learns that he cannot survive in the agency without double-dealing—at one point serving both his first boss, William King Harvey, in Berlin while relaying information secretly to Montague. Later Harry will face much the same split with his own father—working for him on the Bay of Pigs invasion while doing side jobs for Montague, his second father.
Harry’s first assignment, Berlin, is a melting pot of double agents. Everyone seems to be servicing at least two masters, and Harry quickly discovers that the politics of this ambiguous assignment have a sexual tenor as well. Dix Butler, the strapping former professional football player who befriends Harry, is not only running double agents but also apparently engaging in both homo- and heterosexual relationships, for he invites Harry to sodomize him, and he promises he will return the favor. Dix’s point is that agents lead double lives; homosexuals lead double lives; consequently, agents are often homosexuals. Montague’s own code name, Harlot, suggests what agents are: paid agents of pleasure, and it does not matter much whether that pleasure consists of sexual knowledge or political intelligence. Harlots and CIA agents are role-players who sell themselves.
Harry refuses Dix’s invitation to have sex with him—apparently because Harry is afraid of the power Dix might hold over him as a result of their intercourse. There is a physical attraction between the men. Harry makes this clear when he kisses Dix on the lips in the very act of refusing Dix’s plea for a more physically intimate relationship. There is no question that Harry covets the power that Dix commands, but to become his sexual partner would rob Harry of his slight claim to independence.
Harry’s period in Berlin is inconclusive, and his departure is abrupt, for William King Harvey (renowned for building a tunnel underneath the Berlin Wall that has tapped into East German communications) discovers that Harry has been acting as Montague’s agent. In Harry’s next assignment, Montevideo, he learns how a CIA office is run, and he begins to recruit his own agents, one of whom, Chevi Fuertes, is able to penetrate the highest levels of the Uruguayan Communist Party. Working under E. Howard Hunt—arguably the most fascinating and best-realized character in the novel—Harry learns all the techniques of intelligence; he particularly admires the élan with which Hunt courts and stimulates his sources of intelligence.
During Harry’s sojourn in Montevideo, Kittredge breaks off her long-running correspondence with him. They have never consummated their love for each other, but Montague has become suspicious and has cut off Harry’s access to Kittredge. Driven by her love for...
(The entire section is 2023 words.)