The American is the New Man, creating himself afresh; and for many a stateside writer, the novel has represented an opportunity to try on alternate identities. In his “Rabbit” books, John Updike, successful author, imagines himself as a failed jock, proud not of cerebral but of physical exploits. Likewise, in his would-be magnum opus, Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer—wife-stabber, Pentagon stormer, and all-around anti-establishment Rebel Without a Clue—re-creates himself as a CIA man, thereby underscoring what we’ve known all along: that for Fanny Mailer’s ambitious son, the question “Which side are you on?” has never been nearly as important as “Are you where the action is?”[1]

Harlot’s Ghost consists of two texts. In the first, the “Omega manuscript,” Mailer’s...

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