Harlot's Ghost | Critical Review by William H. Pritchard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Harlot's Ghost.
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Critical Review by William H. Pritchard

SOURCE: "Mailer's Main Event," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 149-57.

In the following review, Pritchard offers favorable assessment of Harlot's Ghost, praising the admirable ambition of the work despite Mailer's characteristic narrative style that ranges from "the sublime to the ridiculous."

Six weeks ago one of the larger pieces of mail ever received turned up at my front door in the form of a dauntingly wrapped copy of Harlot's Ghost, all four pounds of it. It was mid-semester break, my sinuses were full of misery, and I settled in, if somewhat warily, to ingest Mailer's longest book. Somewhat warily since a trusted friend, having read it in proof, termed it a disaster; and since Newsweek's Peter Prescott, a pretty good reviewer of fiction, had just called it "a dry and dusty thing … for nearly all of its incredibly long way." Would Harlot pass Wyndham Lewis' "Taxi-Cab Driver Test for 'Fiction'"? The test may be administered, with or without a cab driver, by opening any novel at its first page and seeing whether it looks like "fiction"—with all that word connotes about the diverting, the agreeably "made-up," the "interesting" story line—or something rather different, namely art. Here is a little more than the first page of Harlot's Ghost:

On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.

In the spring, after the planting of corn, the younger braves and squaws would leave the aged to watch over the crops and the children, and would take their birchbark canoes south for the summer. Down the Penobscot River they would travel to Blue Hill Bay on the western side of Mount Desert where my family's house, built in part by my great-great-grandfather, Doane Hadlock Hubbard, still stands. It is called the Keep, and I do not know of all else it keeps, but some Indians came ashore to build lean-tos each summer, and a few of their graves are among us, although I do not believe they came to our island to die. Lazing in the rare joys of northern warmth, they must have shucked clams on the flats at low tide and fought and fornicated among the spruce and hemlock when the water was up. What they got drunk on I do not know, unless it was the musk of each other, but many a rocky beach in the first hollow behind the shore sports mounds of ancient clamshells, ground to powder by the centuries, a beach behind the beach to speak of ancient summer frolics. The ghosts of these Indians may no longer pass through our woods, but something of their old sorrows and pleasures joins the air. Mount Desert is more luminous than the rest of Maine.

Given the present state of things American, I suppose one may give a momentary thought to George Walker Bush and his trailing clouds of ancestral glory. But the ghosts of more formidable American predecessors haunt the passage (I hear Thoreau, Melville, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in it) and hold out for the reader a promise that is the promise of art—one not to be easily satisfied by any mere novel.

In one sense, as reviewers have pointed out, the promise is unfulfilled insofar as the novel's art fails to resolve certain issues raised early on. Harlot's Ghost consists of two disproportionately related sections. The first, titled "Omega" (the last shall be first, evidently), is just over a hundred pages and located on a day in 1983 when the novel's protagonist Herrick Hubbard (mostly though not always called Harry) is driving back from a liaison in Bath with his mistress, Chloe, to his wife, Kittredge, and their island keep off Mt. Desert. The second section, titled "Alpha," consumes the book's remaining 1200 pages and is an account of Harry's life and times, from private school days and a Yale degree up through his enlistment, training and service in the CIA between 1955 and 1965. Both sections, we are to understand, are manuscripts written by Harry, the second of which ends almost twenty years short of where the first begins. In an italicized concluding note to the reader dated "Moscow, 1984" (Harry has gone there to look for his godfather, Hugh Tremont Montague—the "Harlot" of the title—who may either be dead or have defected to the Soviets), Harry admits that he might never finish "the book of Harry Hubbard and his years in Saigon, nor the stretch of service in the White House when one lived through Watergate, no, nor the commencement of my love affair with Kittredge." (Kittredge was married to Hugh Montague but left him for Harry after her and Hugh's son was killed in a rock-climbing accident from which the father survived, but in a wheelchair.) So there are lots of loose ends, and the book concludes with the tease, "To be continued."

Behind and not very far behind Harry is of course Norman Mailer who weighs in on page 1284 with an Author's Note in which he tells us that the book was written "with the part of my mind that has lived in the CIA for forty years." He calls his novel "the product of a veteran imagination that has pondered the ambiguous and fascinating moral presence of the Agency in our national life for the last four decades." This mention of four decades takes us back to the beginning of veteran Mailer's literary career, to the publication in 1948 of The Naked and the Dead, and to the ensuing books that make up so unusual and controversial a road taken.

In considering the sheer bulk of Harlot's Ghost, we remind ourselves that gigantism has always been the keynote of Mailer's imaginative plans for himself. In a preface to his first (unpublished until a 1977 facsimile edition of it) novel, A Transit to Narcissus, he notes that even before The Naked and the Dead he must have written a million or so words in stories and various drafts of Transit. In Advertisements for Myself (1959), itself an outrageous and mainly fascinating display of a novelistic ego's demands, his "advertisement" for "The Man Who Studied Yoga" divulged plans for the eight-part novel to which "Yoga" was prologue. The prologue's hero, Sam Slovoda, would dream eight stages in the travels of a mythical hero, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, "through many worlds, through pleasure, business, communism, church, working class, crime, homosexuality and mysticism." "Not a modest novel," he went on to admit—and not one that was going to get written. After finishing a draft of The Deer Park Mailer tells us that he abandoned the scheme; but in the very next paragraph he directs us to fragments later in Advertisements which are said to be "from that long novel which has come into my mind again, a descendant of Moby Dick" (what else?). One of the fragments referred to is "The Time of Her Time" in which Sergius, settled in his Village loft, gives instruction in bullfighting and—in his avocation as self-styled sex saint—initiates Denise Gondelman into the mysteries of the orgasm. The big book of which "Time" was to be a part, confided Mailer, would take at least ten years and be, by the standards of 1959, probably unpublishable.

In all their superficial contradictions and inconsistencies, these early extravagant claims are worth noting for the way they bring out a deeper consistency in Mailer's vision of himself and his projection of that self onto a reader. In other words, it was not just in the recent Ancient Evenings or in The Executioner's Song that Mailer went too far: excess, from the beginning, was of the essence of the scene. But what marks "The Man Who Studied Yoga," and even more "The Time of Her Time" as important expansive moments in Mailer's literary career, is that each of them in its different way is entertaining. To apply one of Frost's formulations about his own poetry, it feels as though the writer were entertaining ideas (or scenarios or characters) to see if they entertained him. This was a feeling one did not get from Mailer's writing in The Naked and the Dead or Barbary Shore. For one thing there is more comedy in the shorter pieces: like the story (from "Yoga") about how Cassius O'Shaugnessy unscrewed his navel and the disastrous event it led to (his ass fell off); or like New York City's garbage wars as observed by Sergius (in "Time") when he heads into the Lower East Side to look for help in cleaning up his apartment and encounters a gang of kids at play:

They were charming, these six-year-olds, as I told my uptown friends, and they used to topple the overloaded garbage cans, strew them through the street, have summer snowball fights with orange peel, coffee grounds, soup bones, slop, they threw the discus by sailing the raw tin rounds from the tops of cans, their pillow fights were with loaded socks of scum, and a debauch was for two of them to scrub a third around the inside of a twenty-gallon pail still warm with the heat of its emptied treasures.

There is an ease and confidence about these supple observings which would animate some of the best writing—fictional or non—Mailer produced in his great decade, the 1960s.

When fiction pays attention to what people eat or what happens to their garbage, human relationships are anchored in homely rather than ethereal circumstances. So food plays a lively role in Harlot's Ghost as a handy indicator of character and social milieu. Over the course of the book Harry has a number of good meals at the likes of Harvey's Restaurant and Sans Souci, but occasionally partakes of more humble fare. During his weeks of testing at the CIA's I-J-K-L complex in Washington (prior to the agency's move to Langley, Virginia in 1961), he takes a course in World Communism from a Commie hater named Raymond James ("Ray Jim") Burns:

On our last night, Bullseye Burns threw a party for our class in his small apartment in a newly built four-story complex of middle-cost housing in the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia. He had three kids, all boys, all towheads, and I learned on this night that he and his wife were high school sweethearts from Indiana. Mrs. Burns, plain-faced, slab-shaped, served us the casserole dish of cheese and tuna and hot dog relish that had been her party fare for twenty years. (Or, as she called it, her "main-eventer.") It was obvious that she and Ray Jim barely bothered to speak to each other anymore…. I concluded that people like Jim Ray did not quit their marriages until they were feeling inclined to take an ax to their mate.

That casserole has the right slab-like ingredients and harmonizes nicely with the narrator's genial reversing of Ray Jim into Jim Ray. A second passage of cookery is rather more spicy: Harry, now posted to his first assignment in Berlin under the novel's most colorful character (and a historical personage to boot), William King ("King Bill") Harvey, prepares to leave a nightclub called Die Hintertür with his German mistress-to-be Ingrid:

Ingrid was also eating an enormous "Grilled American" of Westphalian ham, tomatoes, and Muenster cheese. I sat down beside her in twitchy detumescence while she slogged down a vast mug of beer, thereby communicating to me in twenty minutes how profoundly one might, over twenty years, come to dislike the eating habits of a mate. Poor Ingrid. The Back Door, as she put it to me with a toothsome grin, never allowed their help enough of food and drink to produce more than a goat turd for the other back door. On this night, therefore, in which my own sphincter had almost played a prominent role, insight came over me at last: I was in the presence of German Humor. Die Hintertür. I got it. A nightclub for assholes.

I quote these passages not because they contain anything of special significance to the story and its thematic preoccupations—although Harry's allusion to his sphincter in the second exhibit refers to a proposition rejected earlier that evening from his unscrupulous rogue colleague (and another of the book's best-drawn characters) Dix Butler. They illustrate rather a level of writing, frequent in the book, that in its breezily informal conduct appears to be unashamedly enjoying itself. One thinks again (I do) of Frost asking rhetorically in an interview, "What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it?" Mailer often seems to be having a good time constructing the sentences and paragraphs in Harlot's Ghost, and this spirit can be infectious. Despite all the fuss generated by his harping on the largeness of his ambitions—to get into the ring with Tolstoy, write the longest novel or the successor to Moby Dick—much of his page-to-page invention takes place with an idiom and material no more elevated than the ones just quoted. Quite simply, they are where most of the action is.

At least two prominent reviews of Harlot's Ghost would have us believe that action to be of little consequence. John Simon (NY Times Book Review, Sept. 29) rehearsed, step by step, the plot (an old gambit of his) under the assumption that readers would perceive the inherent ludicrousness of Mailer's enterprise. (Plots can be made to look pretty silly when extracted from the novel's prose and displayed to readers who have not yet read the novel.) And Louis Menand, always a sharp-minded critic, behaved in The New Yorker (November 4) as if the whole thing were totally misconceived. In Menand's view, Mailer was trying to do ten things at once and had succeeded in finishing none of them. Compared with 1960s Mailer—the writer whom people of Menand's generation read (said he) for an "aggressive and great-souled refusal to cater to sanctimony, whether it was the establishment or the establishment's enemies"—Harlot's Ghost was much too easy on the CIA and American foreign policy over the past decades. Mailer's unwillingness to challenge and provoke thus produced a flaccid novel. Menand also complains about the large amount of "Alpha" devoted to letters between Harry—from his various outposts in Berlin, Uruguay (where he works under E. Howard Hunt) and Florida (Bay of Pigs time)—and Kittredge, who herself works for the agency, in exactly what capacity it is not fully clear. "The most disembodied fictional love affair outside Clarissa," Menand calls it.

Nobody ever wished Clarissa longer, but one does keep turning its pages as the warfares and stratagems between men and men, men and women, women and women, unfold. If Mailer can be compared to [Samuel] Richardson, it could just possibly be as a master of narrative, and so much the better for Mailer. (It is also true that, as with Clarissa, not all the letters in Harlot's Ghost are of equal interest and vitality.) As for Mailer's unwillingness to challenge and provoke, it may have to do with the fact that as he moves toward seventy he finds it harder to take on the loudly aggressive calling-to-court of America's politicians which excited Louis Menand (and others of us) three decades ago. Recall the end of his contribution to a Partisan Review statement about Vietnam in which, shockingly, he put forth the possibility that Vietnam was a "happening" staged by Lyndon Johnson because he could not control things at home:

Cause if it is, Daddy Warbucks, couldn't we have the happening just with the Marines and skip all that indiscriminate roast tit and naked lunch, all those bombed-out ovaries, Mr. J., Mr. L.B.J., Boss Man of Show Biz—I salute you in your White House Oval; I mean America will shoot all over the shithouse wall if this jazz goes on, Jim.

"Jim" indeed! In Harlot's Ghost this vivid idiom, put in the service of a rather different politics, characterizes King Bill Harvey: "That's why we go into every skirmish with the KGB under a handicap. That's why we even have to classify the toilet paper in the crap house. We must keep reminding ourselves to enclave the poop." The other figure who talks this way and makes a single, memorable appearance in the book is Lenny Bruce, who addresses a nightclub audience of which harlot, Kittredge and Harry are part: "That first show was terrific, in fact, if I say so myself, it was so good that I came…. Yes I came, and now I feel out of it. Ah, fellows, I have to get it up for the second time." Kittredge and her husband are appalled; Harry tells us that he has never heard such laughter in a nightclub before: "Laughs slithered out of people like snakes, tore out of them, barked forth, wheezed forth, screamed out."

We presume Harry is not laughing that way, since typically he is detached and contemplative in his response to excessiveness. His own language and idiom are un-hipsterish, an exception being some hopped-up language in "Omega" where he describes lovemaking with his mistress in Time-of-her-time Maileresque: "With Chloe it was get ready for rush, get ready for the sale, whoo-e, gushers, we'd hit oil together. Recuperating he felt low-down and slimy and rich as the earth. You could grow flowers out of your ass." Throughout "Alpha," by contrast, he is the nice (though Wasp) Jewish boy that has always been one of the parts of Mailer's identity. There is a strategy here: Harry needs to be relatively sane, fearful, prudent, sometimes uncertain, in order to set off in all its weird craziness CIA doings in Berlin, Uruguay (a particularly pointless, far-out bunch of "doings") and Cuba. Louis Menand points out rightly that the agency is Mailer's Circumlocution Office, and surely Dickens may be invoked in connection with this too-long book. After all, how lumbering, badly plotted and sometimes inertly written is Little Dorrit in its modest 968 pages. How John Simon might have wished about Dorrit that Dickens, like Thomas Wolfe, had had a great editor; how awkwardly Menand would find its different sections to stand in their relationship to one another.

In Carl Rollyson's new and nicely discriminating biography of Mailer, he makes the claim about him that no American writer, not even Hemingway, has "so fused the invention of a literary style with the creation of a writer's identity." The claim is made during a discussion of Advertisements, especially "The White Negro" and "The Time of Her Time," and it makes sense with respect to those aggressively challenging, sexually and racially combative, efforts. But with Harlot's Ghost it is impossible to identify a literary style discernible on every page and ascribable to the novel as a whole; or rather let us say that the very inclusiveness of Mailer's narrative voice is such as to accommodate perceptions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. To make things further complicated, that voice refuses to provide guidance on how to tell one level from the other. Early in "Omega," Harry's car, on its way back to Mt. Desert, goes into a severe skid just at the moment when its driver remembers how he and Kittredge pledged there would be honesty between them. Fortunately for Harry, it is a three-hundred-sixty degree skid that leaves him still headed for home and "beyond fear":

I felt as if I had fallen out of a ten-story window, landed in a fireman's net, and was now strolling around in a glow and a daze. "Millions of creatures," I said aloud to the empty car—actually said it aloud!—"walk the earth unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep," after which, trundling along at thirty miles an hour, too weak and exhilarated to stop, I added in salute to the lines just recited, "Milton, Paradise Lost," and thought of how Chloe and I had gotten up from bed in her trailer on the outskirts of Bath a couple of hours ago and had gone for a farewell drink to a cocktail lounge with holes in the stuffing of the red leatherette booths.

From unfallen Adam's voice in Book IV of Milton's poem to the holes in those red leatherette booths is only as far as from the beginning of a sentence to its end, a distance negotiated with no particular fuss by the narrative voice. Unlike the tense polemical thrusts of early Mailer (the writer as bullfighter or boxer or cocksman), this relaxed, expansive voice (all too expansive, detractors would say) can entertain widely different perspectives and not be overwhelmed by them. Like the style of early Mailer, this one is explorative, but in a less threatened and threatening way. You might almost call it mellow. The inclusiveness of range in latest Mailer means that while Harry can rise to heights of spiritual self-definition—as when, a newly-recruited CIA man, he thinks that "Happiness was the resonance one knows in the heart when the ends of oneself come to concordance in the morning air"—he stays enough in touch with earthly things to produce, when the occasion demands it, a good joke:

"Why won't Baptists," I asked her, "make love standing up?"

"Why won't they?"

"Because people might think they were dancing."

In perhaps the most perceptive review the book has received, Thomas R. Edwards (New Republic, Nov. 25) shrewdly suggests that Harlot's Ghost invites itself to be thought of as something like religious epic, "Mailer's Paradise Lost, as it were, in which the cold war could figure as the War in Heaven, the Creation, and the Fall." He goes on to note the fusion of sacred and secular levels in various characters from the novel. It should be clear from my own focus that what seems to me the book's major mode of performance is religious epic gone askew, the way CIA operations do; in other words—and since, as Kenneth Burke reminds us, comedy is the literary form which sees human beings as necessarily mistaken—this religious epic is a comic one. Edwards concludes his review by quoting Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost in a passage I wish I had found myself but will shamelessly appropriate nonetheless:

To paint things as they are requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton's delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his fancies out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings, to trace the councils of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven.

Edwards notes that these terms have something to do with spying; they also bring out the overweeningness of Milton's and of Mailer's imagination. For both imaginations, reality is a scene too narrow. It is even possible that having Harry remember the Milton line with the word "spiritual" left out (Adam tells Eve in the poem that "Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth / Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep") is Mailer's way of de-spiritualizing his religious epic and playing up the comic-grotesque possibilities of spying gone over the edge. In Milton's line, the spiritual creatures behold God's work "with ceaseless praise" both day and night; Mailer's creatures are more equivocal, even just plain strange, and perhaps of the devil's party without knowing it.

Maybe, after all, any modern epic has to be comic and satiric, less like Paradise Lost than like Byron's "Vision of Judgment":

     The angels all were singing out of tune
      And hoarse with having little else to do,
     Excepting to wind up the sun and moon
      Or curb a runaway young star or two …
     The guardian seraphs had retired on high,
      Finding their charges past all care below.

At the end of Harlot's Ghost Harry acknowledges that he has not, like Milton, quite risen to the height of his great argument: "Unlike God I have not been able to present all of my creation." For too many years we have observed the critics lamenting Mailer's failure to live up to this or that, his immense talent wasted on various misconceived enterprises, his preoccupation with X when clearly he should have been occupied with Y. My own attitude is closer to Dryden's on Chaucer: if Mailer the novelist fails to live up to God, he still has given us God's plenty.

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