Lobstergirl's Reviews > Harlot's Ghost

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer
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's review
Oct 13, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: own, fiction
Recommended for: Desirée Rogers

** spoiler alert **
Mailer's massive novel about the CIA begins in 1983, with the narrator Harry Hubbard and his wife Kittredge on their small private island off the coast of Mount Desert Island in Maine. Soon things begin to go very wrong: one of Hubbard's colleagues makes a surreptitious visit to the island to deliver the bad news that Hugh Montague, aka "Harlot," Kittredge's former husband and Harry's godfather and CIA mentor, has turned up dead, either as a result of a sailing accident, or murder, or something else. One purpose of the novel, ostensibly, is to figure out what happened to Harlot. Is he really dead, or is it the body of an imposter? Was he merely a CIA agent, or a double agent working for the KGB? Has he fled to Moscow, as Harry suspects? At the end of the first section, Harry has gone to Moscow to figure it all out. So far, so good.

We now go back in time to 1955, with Harry fresh out of college and recruited to the Company. His first posting is to Berlin, working under the crazed and earthy station chief Bill Harvey; Uruguay follows, where future Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt is CIA chief of station, then Washington and Miami. Harry is in on the planning for the Bay of Pigs, and makes his way to the shores of Cuba during the missile crisis. Along the way we meet Harry's formidably crusty father Cal (also his CIA mentor), Harry's bullying, macho, sexually damaged colleague Dix Butler, a luscious stewardess named Modene Murphy (modeled after famed courtesan Judith Campbell Exner), Sam Giancana, Frank Sinatra, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Fidel Castro, and others. Much of the novel is epistolary exchanges between Harry and Kittredge (who also works for the CIA as some type of behavioral analyst); through their letters much Cold War history and covert minutiae are revealed. Though their affair doesn't begin until the late 60s, Harry is in love with her from the moment they meet.

As a writer Mailer drips with natural talent and a wonderfully comic sensibility. The words he puts in the mouths of Hugh Montague, Cal Hubbard, and Bill Harvey are genius. Hugh: "I cannot bear that chirpy Bobby Kennedy, always building his beaver's nest with a few more facts. He needs to look into the abyss." A story about Hugh has passed into legend at the CIA - the time when

“In a lighted office across the court he saw one of his colleagues kissing a secretary. Harlot promptly dialed that office, and as he watched, the man separated himself from the embrace long enough to pick up his phone.
“Aren’t you appalled by yourself?” Harlot asked.
“Who is this?”
“God,” said Harlot and hung up.

Mailer is less successful with his main female character, Kittredge, and the interminable correspondence between her and Harry taxes the reader's patience. The story, at the outset, is an interesting one, whose resolution we would very much like to know. Unfortunately the novel's narrative arc is ultimately unsatisfying. There is simply too much extraneous information about side characters and peripheral storylines (I've read enough about Fidel Castro to last me several years), and too little focus on the novel's fascinating namesake, Harlot. Finally, the novel fails to resolve the mystery of Harlot.

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Quotes Lobstergirl Liked

Norman Mailer
“I cannot bear that chirpy Bobby Kennedy, always building his beaver's nest with a few more facts. He needs to look into the abyss.”
Norman Mailer, Harlot's Ghost

Reading Progress

October 13, 2009 – Shelved
October 13, 2009 – Shelved as: own
December 5, 2010 – Started Reading
December 5, 2010 –
page 12
0.92% "I embark on a 1,310 page book. Day One: partly cloudy, some ice on sidewalks. Rescue seems far off. Need to get some food in my belly."
December 5, 2010 –
page 40
3.05% "I love the dinghy trip from Seal Cove to Doane Island."
December 7, 2010 –
page 184
December 11, 2010 –
page 190
December 13, 2010 –
page 468
35.73% "So far so good, but I see we're heading into a dense epistolary thicket."
December 16, 2010 –
page 487
37.18% "Isn't it kind of lazy to veer off into epistolaryness? I'm not really sure what it accomplishes."
December 21, 2010 –
page 512
December 22, 2010 –
page 570
43.51% "This Uruguayan section is going on way too long."
January 1, 2011 –
page 662
January 10, 2011 –
page 722
55.11% "Couldn't tell what the heck was going on in Uruguay."
January 11, 2011 –
page 819
January 12, 2011 –
page 864
January 13, 2011 –
page 957
73.05% "Bay of Pigs, commence!"
January 13, 2011 –
page 967
73.82% "Please, God, just let an elephant step on my ass, says Cal."
January 14, 2011 –
page 1008
76.95% "Cracked the 1,000 page mark. Only 302 pp to go."
January 15, 2011 –
page 1053
80.38% "I sure wish this had more of a narrative arc."
January 16, 2011 –
page 1170
January 17, 2011 – Finished Reading
January 28, 2011 – Shelved as: fiction

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Monica (new)

Monica I'm fascinated by people who are able to read novels. It's a huge generalization but true. If I wanted to know about Cuba or the CIA I wouldn't look to Norman Mailer. Excuse me for saying this cause I don't have much really to base this on other than intuition but he strikes me as pompous and I don't want to subject myself to him. He's famous but I'm not sure I want to read ANYTHING by him.

I read a lot about Che last year here:
and here:

Lobstergirl I am mostly drawn to novels these days, an abrupt turnaround from my earlier reading when I read almost entirely nonfiction. I wanted to have information, to learn facts and ideas. I didn't see how I could learn anything from fiction. I don't necessarily look to novels to learn about things like the CIA; when I do want to read a history of the CIA, I'll turn to nonfiction. But I really enjoy spy novels in general (Le Carre, Buchan); not because I want to learn about spying so much as because I just want to read a good story, and be entertained. Whether Mailer is pompous or not is somewhat beside the point to me; if he was so pompous that it infected every sentence he wrote and was offputting, doubtless that would bother me. But I enjoy his writing.

message 3: by Monica (new)

Monica OK that's good to know, thank you.

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