HARLOT'S GHOST by Norman Mailer
Kirkus Star


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The Big One, volume one (yes, 1,408 pages!) of Mailer's long-promised masterpiece, in which he does for the CIA what Melville did for mammals and God, and what Thomas Mann did for the metaphysics of tuberculosis. A small serving of potted plot: Herrick (Harry) Hubbard has been raised in the thickish atmosphere of the CIA, which his Hemingwayesque father, Cal, helped deliver out of WW II's OSS. Harry's godfather is CIA overseer Hugh Tremont Montague, a Christian Einstein of spycraft, who may also be the Devil. Hugh is married to Hadley Kittredge Gardiner (named after Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, and the great Shakespearean scholar George Kittredge). Harry loves Kittredge and marries her after Hugh breaks his back and causes the death of his son in a climbing accident. All this happens before the novel begins and will be told in detail in volume two. In fact, Kittredge abandons Harry for boorish CIA superman Dix Butler in the novel's overture and Harry hides out in the Bronx to write volume one. All this is framework for the stuff of the story, which tells of Harry's early years in the CIA (1956-63), during which he is sent to Berlin to work under fabled spymaster William King Harvey, a genius now gone to gin, then to Florida to work on the Bay of Pigs invasion, then into Operation Mongoose, the assassination of Fidel Castro. And during these latter ops, he falls for Modene Murphy (who's modeled on Judith Exner, mistress to Frank Sinatra, Godfather Sam Giancana, and JFK). The novel ends with Harry setting up Castro's murder just as JFK is assassinated. That's it, but it tells you nothing about the sorcery of the telling, with Mailer's novelistic gifts working at full mastery, his magic with moods, metaphor and touches of color (his Havana harbor rivals Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra's barge), his genius for character and matted plotting, humor, and gripping flights of philosophy (far more lively than The Magic Mountain's) with the CIA seen as "the mind of America."

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1991
ISBN: 0345379659
Page count: 1408pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1991


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