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'Mailer-ized' Spy Tale

PLOTS to poison Fidel Castro. FBI wiretaps on Bobby Kennedy. A rumored love affair between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. A former Nazi general setting up a spy network for American intelligence. The Soviet infiltration of British and American intelligence via the team of Guy Burgess and Kim Philby. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and some of the stories that have come out about the history of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seem wilder than any invention of Ian Fleming's.Making his usual dead set for the obvious, Norman Mailer has decided to expropriate this juicy material for the subject of his latest and longest novel, "Harlot's Ghost." As he argues, persuasively enough, in his "Author's Note," there is no reason why a good novelist who has familiarized himself with the material might not produce a work of fiction that would capture the spirit of the CIA - and its role in history - during the dangerous and heady years of the cold war. This, however, is not that book. It is more than 1,300 pages of recycled rumors and stale revelations that will be familiar to anyone who's read even a handful of the many histories and memoirs (from Philip Agee's "Inside the Company: CIA Diary" to Judith Exner's "My Story") obligingly listed by the author as sources of his research. It begins promisingly enough. The first hundred pages, called the "Omega" manuscript, tell the dramatic fictional story of a fateful night in 1983, when the narrator, a CIA agent named Harry Hubbard, learns some shocking news about his spiritual godfather and long-time agency mentor, Hugh Montague, nicknamed "Harlot." The scene is set on the beautiful and isolated Maine island where Hubbard, scion of an old New England family, now lives with his wife, Kittredge, who also works for the CIA and who used to be married to Hugh Montague. The legendary Harlot (whom Mailer claims is loosely based on spymaster James Angleton) first captivated the heart of the lovely, aristocratic Kittredge when she was just a new recruit, fresh out of Radcliffe and eager to apply her highly original psychological theories to the world of espi onage. Like young Harry Hubbard, her contemporary and also third cousin, Kittredge was imbued with a sense of mission. What happened to that sense of mission in the nearly 30 years that followed and how Harry eventually came to supplant Harlot in Kittredge's heart are the questions Mailer purports to answer in the 1,200 pages that follow the atmospheric, action-packed opening segment. All this - the remainder of the book, give or take a page - goes by the name of the "Alpha" manuscript. It is supposed to be the secret history of his life in the CIA that Harry has been keeping since 1955. Its working title (no surprises!) is "The Game." Harry and Kittredge have imbibed the intoxicating belief that they are fighting an apocalyptic battle against the forces of slavery and entropy as embodied in Soviet communism. Intelligence - in both senses of the word - will be their chosen weapon. They believe they are acting as their country's brain in discovering and interpreting information about the enemy. But before long, it becomes apparent that intelligence work can involve distorting the truth - and trying to influence events by resorting to mo rally dubious tactics. The problem first becomes clear during Harry's assignment in Berlin. Thanks to a secret tunnel, the CIA discovers that the threat of the Soviet military machine is less than had been supposed. But Harlot insists they must ignore this information in order to maintain the myth of a huge Soviet buildup to prevent Americans from going soft on communism. The role of serving as the nation's intelligence has been superseded by the conviction that no one in the nation but its intelligence community can be truste d to know the truth. Mailer succeeds in conveying the sense of election felt by the young recruits chosen to serve as part of an elite group: The underlying arrogance of their idealism is masked by their self-denigrating admiration for their legendary superiors, like Harlot. As Harry and Kittredge are drawn more deeply into their work, they witness more and more items that give them pause. Kittredge becomes involved with agency experiments with LSD. She begins to wonder about the rationale that mind-control is OK because we' re doing it to fight against communist mind-control. Harry, who is the chief focus of the novel, has a series of adventures taking him from Berlin to Uruguay, where he is teamed up with future Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt. Later, he is involved in the plot to overthrow Castro that culminates in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. He also becomes involved with a beautiful stewardess, Modene Murphy (modeled on the real-life Judith Exner), who is also the mistress of John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra. The trouble is, we've heard it all before, and Mailer's fictional retelling of these events does little to clarify or explain them. If truth is stranger than fiction, fiction should make sense of truth's strangeness. Or, to put it more plainly, fiction should not be a bigger and more confused mess than the world it is trying to portray. In more than a thousand pages, Mailer does not even take the story back to 1983: the "Alpha" narrative breaks off in 1965 - before the Tet offensive, before Watergate, be fore Iran-Contra. ("To be continued" concludes the last page, one notes, not without horror.) The massive amount of space he devotes to the brief period he does cover is simply not justified by anything interesting he has to say about the Kennedys, Castro, or the cold war. As someone who grew up in those years, I can attest that it seemed to take less time to actually live through those events than it did to read this lumbering, heavy-handed account of them. Somewhere in this elephantine rehash of American intelligence follies is a valid point about the perils of hubris: the overweening conviction that our side is right can lead us to do things that are wrong. But the hubris of gung-ho intelligence officers seems to pale beside that of a writer with the gall to present this bloated, too-familiar tale as if it were a modern-day "War and Peace," when it's not even a patch on "Gone With the Wind."

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