Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: "Harlot's Ghost" by Norman Mailer

Reading any book over 1000 pages is exhausting, especially one with as much dead space and boring exposition as Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer’s epic novel about the CIA and at 1168 pages in paperback form, and his longest. I never know what I am going to get when I open up a Mailer book. He is a giant of 20th century literature, a creative genius at home wearing many hats. He can write something as introspective yet overly macho like The Fight, his account of the fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Zaire yet create what I feel is one of the great and most important works of the century with The Executioner’s Song, his mammoth “non-fiction novel” on the life and trial of murderer Gary Gilmore. So this book, which has some bright moments, both poignant and hilarious (whether intentional or not) and some lousy ones, is still and experience I cherished throughout reading it. The book opens in a rather interesting fashion, with CIA spy Harry Hubbard, recounting the death of his mentor, the Harlot of the title, all the while carrying on with a mistress, lamenting the lost love of Kittredge, his wife and third cousin, and finally, recounting the ghosts he has seen in his Maine harbor manor, this last part being the book’s most inspired aspect. After getting shipped off to Moscow for security reasons, he takes along his 1000 page memoir, and the rest of the novel finds him reading it, along with various letters, mostly between him and Kittredge, reliving his life and the influence he had on such events as the Bay of Pigs and the assassination of JFK. This is a hard book to summarize, since it has lots of characters, and the motivation of most of them and the details of their plans, much like in the CIA, are vague and kept in the shadows. What really shines though is the persona; connections people make in such a world, whether that be purely sexual (this book is ripe with bad sex scenes) paternal, or substantial love, like the extended section where Harry falls in love with someone who I think is a stand-in for Marilyn far not his best, with the failed promise of a sequel more of a threat than a treat, I found this curiosity mostly pleasurable even if it wasn’t all that good. 

Rating: 3/5

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