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Harlot's Ghost

Harlot’s Ghost is a imagined chronicle of the Central Intelligence Agency. Written by Norman Mailer, the story contains characters that are a mix of fictional characters and real people. It follows Harry Hubbard in his life with the CIA, the results of the Cuban Revolution, the influence of the mafia in the 1960s, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Brief summary of Harlot's Ghost

The novel begins with Harry receiving a message from a friend that his CIA mentor has either committed suicide or been murdered. Shortly after, Hubbard is told by his wife, who also works for the CIA, that she has been carrying on an affair with a higher level CIA officer. Believing that his life is in danger, Harry Hubbard flees to Moscow where he reviews the manuscript of his life in the CIA that he has kept secret. It is then that the book really begins, recounting the details of his life while, on a deeper level, examining the Cuban Missile Crisis and revolution, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the battle against Communism during the Cold War.

Major literary themes

Harlot’s Ghost is developed around the theme of American power. The power of the American government is focused upon again and again through the book. The mid-twentieth century saw the United States embroiled in several world affairs, including the Cuban Revolution and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Several characters in the book, such as Harry’s father Cal and his CIA mentor Harlot, are starkly anti-Communist and have each devoted their lives to the preservation of American dominance.

Another theme often visited in Harlot’s Ghost is the idea of an Alpha and an Omega, which is examined in both historical events and individual personalities alike. For example, Harry Hubbard’s wife is deeply in love with another man and confides in him things that she would never share with her own husband. Still, she continues to devote most of her life to her husband, despite not truly loving him. This same disloyalty is repeated within the CIA itself. For example, Harry realizes that he cannot survive and thrive within the agency without double-dealing, working for one boss while secretly relaying information to another. The Alpha/Omega theme is visited again in Harry’s relationship with his father, whom he works for on the Bay of Pigs while also working for his mentor and father-figure on the side. 

The book surely explores the very nature of American imperialism as it relates to modern conflicts.

A fictional success

Harlot’s Ghost also has a strong sexual component. Harry soon finds during his very first assignment that the politics of the agency have strong sexual tenors. The character of Dix Butler is a very handsome former professional football player who participates in secret sexual relationships with other agents of various levels. Dix offers sex to Harry, but Harry fears the power that Dix may hold over him if he complies and denies the invitation. Though he is attracted to Dix and the power he represents, Harry does not want to get ahead by sleeping with a superior and prefers to maintain his small claim to independence. 

Critics said that Harlot’s Ghost exhibited both the best and worst of Norman Mailer. As for the best of him, the book is a great example of Mailer’s incredible talent for merging fact and fiction seamlessly and doing so in an exciting and thought-provoking way. Further, his characters are a perfect blend of fictional characters and real life people. However, critics felt that the book also showed the negative aspects of Norman Miller’s writing. It has been said that his writing in longwinded and is riddled with redundancies. In addition, readers complained that the book was homophobic, chauvinistic (a common theme even in Shakespearean literature), and featured a lot of unnecessary vulgarity.

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