As a teenager, I learned to appreciate fiction by reading The Naked and the Dead. High school teachers force fed us The Odyssey and The Iliad and other “classics,” but Mailer gave teenage boys thirsty for sex and violence (vicariously, of course) a reason to read.
In the 1960s, Mailer turned anti-war activist and reporter. Not all his books succeeded in achieving the literary excellence he demanded, but he retained his courage and determination to express ideas about subjects most writers avoid.
In his personal life he often behaved like an immature, publicity-seeking asshole, picking fights and causes without thought. In that sense he also represented a large stain and strain of American life. His death at 84 represents a loss of a national treasure.
The obituaries on Norman Mailer offer little or no space to his literary contribution that offers unique insight into the Cold War. Harlot’s Ghost explored the U.S.-Soviet clash as no historian or sociologist dared — or had the capacity to probe.
By using Herrick “Harry” Hubbard, a CIA officer, as his protagonist who somehow finds himself present at CIA designed coups, failed invasions (Bay of Pigs) and other Cold War milestones, Mailer explores the real life acting company that played its parts in the four decade long drama of the late 20th Century, a group of spiritually agitated — even bored — Nabobs and lower class types they were forced to acquire acting out a dangerous high stakes game. Like their playboy ancestors in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, these capricious and irresponsible adult brats, who eschewed concepts like patriotism and loyalty, thought to satisfy their whims by playing Cold War on the world stage.
Mailer, through fiction, showed the ridiculous world of the Ivy League preachers and professors, the sons and daughters of old wealth, who wrote the script for the supposed clash of Mammoth Powers. The United States has not had a rival since England. It created the Soviet Union as a super power in order to play the most exciting game in all of history, one that became downright frightening in 1949 when the Soviets achieved nuclear weapons.
The Soviets possessed nothing but those weapons to challenge U.S. power. They never developed a viable economy; nor did they achieve the ability to export a competitive culture — a la Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Imagine, Soviets programming TV and radio stations and trying to offer fare equal to 24/7 shopping, flesh almighty and bang bang bang!
Mailer begins his novel in the early 1980s. He picks up from F. Scott Fitzgerald in describing the wealthy and irresponsible WASPs in New England, a man with a solid reputation, a pedigreed wife (at home) and an equally aristocratic, but much hotter mistress — his cousin no less.
Harry’s godfather and guru, Harlot, has apparently blown himself away — like some real CIA bigwigs did. In this case, the dead man represented counterintelligence. But, like several CIA hotshots, he may have been a KGB mole. Indeed, his death might also fall into the realm of cloak and daggerdom.
Harry’s wife, Kittredge, once Harlot’s femme fatale, has been bonking Harry’s CIA pal and sometimes foe, Dix Butler. Dix adores criminal behavior and will commit almost any bizarre act to make money — including assassinate his wife. Mailer’s characters covering walk in and out of episodes that cover decades of personal and national misalliances and betrayals. At each turn, the reader finds the leaders of U.S. “intelligence” to lack any ideological foundation except to their own capricious pleasures.
The top CIA dogs in the book helped create the myth of Soviet power while politicians and media flaks sold their bullshit to the public. Mailer explores major CIA fiascos carried out in the name of advancing freedom or gathering advantages in the Cold War: In the 1950s, they dug the Berlin Tunnel under KGB headquarters only to discover they had fallen into a KGB trap; they launched the invasion of Cuba after convincing themselves Cuba would fall like Guatemalan President Arbenz did in 1954 in a similar “invasion.” The inventors of these plans really don’t care about consequences — then or now. Mailer also explores assassination plots — and the bizarre set of assassins the Agency chose — to kill Castro.
We meet the top dogs, like Allen Dulles and the psychopathic planners of hits, like, E. Howard Hunt. The history of the CIA is after all the abbreviated nuts and bolts of Cold War history.
The characters playing the lead roles are seriously disturbed. A CIA psychologist plays with deadly drugs and studies the psychic processes by which covert ops adapt to multiple identities — all this nonsense in the name of defending freedom.
The WASPS who lead the adventurous game know the Soviets pose no threat. When Harry, the eager young CIA op discovers that the Soviets never adjusted their railroad gauges to coincide with those of Eastern Europe, thus making impossible a notion of supplying troops invading Western Europe, his superior tells him not to report that information. If the public should get wise that the CIA and its political and media cohorts had invented the “Soviet threat” to attack the West, the Cold War would end — and with it the grand adventure. The mass media never reported this “little fact.” Imagine pubic reaction to a report that the supposed Soviet attack plan against the West required supplies for its armies to stop at the Eastern Europe borders, get unloaded onto trucks and then reloaded onto different trains! Hardly a scenario for lightning surprise attack!
The gurus of Mailer’s great game are Protestant ministers, literature professors, rock climbing addicts and practitioners of sexual perversity — much like the old European aristocracy for whom old fashioned sex had become a yawn.
Mailer had previously reported on the Vietnam War, spoken at anti-war demonstrations and wrote an allegorical novel (Why Are We In Vietnam?) using a group of Texans hunting grizzly bears in Alaska as his metaphor for U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia. Americans hunt whatever happens to be around, the novel suggests. Vietnam presented the leading hunters (Presidents) with a chance to seek a new kind of prey. And they use technology to achieve their success: helicopters to help them find and destroy the bears. Yet, there is a trace of admiration, even longing in Mailer’s often comic descriptions of the super macho characters. This short but pugnacious Jewish intellectual wanted to be a tough guy, and when he tried to be one at cocktail parties or luncheons, he invariably made a fool of himself. And his behavior found its way into the media.
His bad boy image, however, didn’t stop Mailer from expressing his insights into the real tough guys, the killers who didn’t seem to possess a soul, who could not be explained by poverty or parental abuse. Such a character, Gary Gilmore, became central in The Executioner’s Song, where Mailer paints an original picture of what Joan Didion called “that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fadeout, trail off, like skywriting.” (New York Times, October 7, 1979)
Mailer writes a painful sketch of Gary Gilmore, the murderer. He offers a detailed sociological fact sheet on Mormon passivity in the face of a killer in their midst. He analyzes and explains the absurdities of the police and legal system before a person gets executed.
Mailer tackled the big issues: war, corruption, hypocrisy at the highest levels.
He also loved publicity and the art of coining the perfect phrase. He was homophobic and misogynistic. Indeed, Mailer never learned to portray women in a realistic dimension. He clearly didn’t understand them; not a comment on his six wives.
Mailer understood American duplicity, the fog of religious-based freedom rhetoric that covers the most devious political behavior. He also understood the banality that marries heroism in war. In The Naked and The Dead the six remaining platoon members share a mission. A Jew, some non Jews and a few anti-Semites, some learned and some ignorant, all share the same horrid conditions on a Pacific island. This is Mailer’s American democracy, the bonding of mismatches in battlefield conditions. Equally American is the troops killing Japanese POWs and stealing souvenirs from enemy corpses. They worry about their wives screwing other guys while feeling a little uneasy about screwing other women. Then, they discover their mission — which killed more than half of them — meant absolutely nothing in winning the war. He could have been writing about almost any war.
SAUL LANDAU writes a regular column for CounterPunch and progresoweekly.com. His new Counterpunch Press book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE (on globalization in Mexico) won the VIDEOFEST 2007 Award for best activist video. The event was held in October at the Roxie Theater. The film is available through firstname.lastname@example.org