WHO ARE YOU?
In an interview that she gave some fifty years after the fact, Marina Oswald Porter is still puzzling over the whole business. What happened, how and why, and by whom was it made to happen? She isn’t sure she knows even the least thing about the man she married in the USSR and lived with, bore two children with. The interviewer asked her what question she would ask Lee, were he to return somehow miraculously from the dead. She said, “I’d ask him, Who are you?”
Scads of books have been published since November 22, 1963, all trying to answer questions that arose on that date. In fact, interlarded with the story of Lee Oswald and the assassination of President Kennedy in Libra (NAL/Penguin, 1989, 456 pages) is the tale of a researcher, Nicholas Branch. This fictional character is a retired senior analyst of the CIA, “hired on contract to write the secret history of the assassination.” We first meet him on page 15, and already he is overwhelmed by facts, fictions and factions. “Sometimes he looks around him, horrified by the weight of it all, the career of paper. He sits in the data-spew of hundreds of lives. There’s no end in sight.”
Branch shows up periodically throughout the pages of Libra, always struggling with the data, the facts both pertinent and impertinent, musing upon any number of irresolvable issues. “He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren Report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.”
Of course, it all always comes back to Lee Harvey Oswald, a man who was simply Lee Oswald until that November day in 1963. Then he was awarded, as the notorious are—compare U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who also shows up in the pages of Libra—with “the full intonation of the name,” which seems strange to him. Lee Harvey Oswald is on everyone’s lips, but to Lee “it sounded odd and dumb and made up.” That’s not him. “They were talking about somebody else.” Yes. Maybe they were.
Who is he/was he? Here’s the best answer: Lee was a misfit from day one, a loner, not particularly talented at anything, but determined to show the world that he was somebody, not nobody. And he did, because now he’s in all the history books. “After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.”
That’s the way it went in the sixties and seventies of the last century. Of course, the times have changed. The loner/misfit/loser with the gun, the assassinations of the famous in the U.S.—this has gone out of style in the year 2020. Politicians apparently have much better security these days; the technology is so much more highly developed. So those mired in quiet desperation have to find other ways to prove to the world that they exist.
But Marina’s questions still remain unanswerable. Despite the piles of evidence in the office of the fictitious Nicholas Branch, notwithstanding the multitude of books on the Kennedy Assassination. We just do not know and never will how and why a concatenation of circumstances came together on that fateful day in November, 1963. Nonfiction cannot get even close to definitive answers, but fiction possibly can. Sitting like Nicholas Branch, all alone in a room not far from where young Lee once lived with his mother Marguerite—and where Trotsky lived as well, “only blocks away,” in the Bronx—a writer of fiction circumvents the massive pile of data and tears through the very veil of existence with his fictional account. You want the best possible variant on what happened that day and how, and why? Read Don DeLillo’s Libra.
IN THE BRONX: RIDING THE SUBWAY WHILE MAKING UP A LIFE
Libra begins with a chapter titled “In The Bronx,” a wonderful description of young Lee Oswald as he rides the New York subway trains, not riding to get anywhere, but just riding for the sake of the ride. “The train smashed through the dark. People stood on platforms, staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were . . . . . . Then the express stations, the creaky brakes, people bunched like refugees. They came wagging through the doors, banged against the rubber edges, inched their way in, were quickly pinned, looking out past the nearest heads into that practiced oblivion.” Ah, people in elevators or subway stations, practicing their looks of blankness—right away we know we’re in a DeLillo novel.
Then again, the random riding of the train is a kind of all-enveloping metaphor for the existence of loser Lee. Random movement is characteristic of the whole of his short life. It begins as he and his weird mother Marguerite move from city to city, and from apartment to apartment within those cities. “They were not wanted anymore and they moved to the basement room in the Bronx, the kitchen and bedroom and everything together, where blue heads spoke to them from the TV screen.” Two lonely people, sitting alone together, watching blue talking heads.
Lee was born in New Orleans and did not wander his way north with his mother until early adolescence. He always has “a turbulence running through him, the accepted fact of a fatherless boy.” He finds nothing in school to interest him, no contact with his peers in the Bronx, who mock him for his southern accent. He skips school, not once or twice, but every day. He hangs out at the zoo, watches the animals. Two fellow students, Nicky Black and Scalzo, harass him there. Nicky Black, a dreamer, sums up the modest aspirations of an adolescent boy in the American fifties: “The kid quits school the minute he’s sixteen. I mean look out . . . The kid gets a job in construction. First thing, he buys ten shirts with Mr. B collars. He saves his money, before you know it he owns a car. He simonizes the car once a month. The car gets him laid. Who’s better than the kid?”
Nicky Black never shows up again later in the novel, but you can imagine him fitting right in with the narrative as it proceeds in the sixties, joining the multitude of sad nonentities who come together to make up the story. For Libra is all about nonentities, little people with big ideas. The biggest nonentity of all is Lee Oswald, but he does not think so, and nothing’s either good or bad but thinking makes it so. Lee lives in a magic world of his own imagination. He watches “I Led Three Lives” on TV and sees himself in the role of secret agent Herb Philbrick. Several times the movie Seven Samurai is mentioned; that’s another film Lee would like to star in. He’d like to be one of the “men outside society” these “free-lance warriors” who are called on to save a helpless people from destruction.
Lee Oswald is certainly a person from outside of society. He never even begins getting inside society, would have no idea of how that is done. He meanders on through his nocount life, grinning his little grin, which says, like Nicky Black, “Who’s better than the kid?” The answer is that practically everybody is, but in the kid’s own smug mind he dreams grandiose dreams. “There is a world inside the world.” That leitmotif of a sentence shows up four or five times scattered through the text. As if to say that our world is not real, that there’s a world more real inside our world. And Lee’s.
The kid has big plans. Like Nicky Black, his plan number one involves quitting school at age sixteen. Which will assure that he has no education and few chances to make a decent wage for the rest of his sorry life. But the kid doesn’t care, for his dreams soar far above the pallid bourgeois dream of gainful employment, home, hearth and family. Even before joining the Marines at age seventeen Lee Oswald reads Marxist literature, fancies himself a rebel socialist. While in the Marines, stationed at Atsugi, a U-2 base in Japan, he preaches Communism to his fellow Marines, who call him Ozzie the Rabbit and Oswaldovich. Note the casual disdain. Nobody ever takes this guy seriously. “In Atsugi he went on a movie binge. He saw every movie twice, keeping to himself, spent serious time at the base library, learning Russian verbs.”
Given the complexities of the Russian verbal system, I’d have loved to be there for that scene, observing the dyslexic Oswaldovich as he struggled with the imperfective and perfective forms. Marine life is oppressive, but so what? “Maybe what has to happen is that the individual must allow himself to be swept along, must find himself in the stream of no-choice, the single direction. This is what makes things inevitable. You use the restrictions and penalties they invent to make yourself stronger. History means to merge. The purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin. He knew what Trotsky had written, that revolution leads us out of the dark night of the isolated self.”
Lee never came out of the dark night of the isolated self, nor, it appears, did he ever wish to. His narcissistic, sociopathic personality had little need of his fellow man. Who’s better than the kid, heh? In Atsugi he was a radar operator with a security clearance, which he lost when he violated a rule about prohibition of personal firearms. He shot himself in the arm, with the aim of averting a transfer, and ended up in the brig. Always scheming.
DeLillo invents the description of Lee’s time in the brig. I don’t think anything here is based on actual fact, it’s all fiction, but Libra is so written that you cannot always tell who the real characters are—Marguerite Oswald, Jack Ruby, Guy Bannister, and so on—and who are the totally fictitious—Nicholas Branch, Win Everette, T.J. Mackey. But then, when DeLillo works his magic upon the person of a real character, he so thoroughly delillocizes that character that he or she fits perfectly into what some critic once called “the insidious and chronic disquiet” of the DeLillo fiction. Bobby Dupard, Lee’s cellmate in the brig and fellow native of Texas, is, I think, totally made up. Later on, back in Texas, he helps Lee in his attempt to assassinate rightwing general Edwin Walker. Walker was real, and so was Oswald’s attempt to shoot him. Dupard is a fictional character, he wasn’t “really” there, but the story makes sense the way it’s told. Much later in the text Dupard’s violent end—he is shot and killed in a robbery—jibes with the violent ends of so many others in the scenario, real and imagined.
Next comes an early discharge from the Marines, predicated on false grounds—that Oswald had to go back home and help his poor mother. The kid had no use for his mother, nor any desire to help her. He was already under the sway of a new grandiose dream. He would defect to the Soviet Union and live there in the magical world of ideal socialism. And that’s exactly what this nineteen-year-old kid did, a person not totally ignorant, but not all that smart either. At this point his life held, apparently, few prospects for future success, but there was something there, not yet delved by history itself, but it was there. And could be there are fiction writers out there who, unbeknown to us, write us as we live our lives. One of these is the fictitious Win Everette, a renegade CIA agent who is instrumental in fomenting a plot to assassinate, or pretend to assassinate, President Kennedy.
“We lead more interesting lives than we think. We are characters in plots, without the compression and numinous sheen. Our lives, examined carefully in all their affinities and links, abound with suggestive meaning, with themes and involute turnings we have not allowed ourselves to see completely. He [Everette] would show the secret symmetries in a nondescript life” [Oswald’s life]. What’s going on here? Everette’s scheme to make up a fitting background life for Lee Oswald, the man he will use as the patsy, to take all the blame for the attempt on Kennedy’s life that Everette and other renegade former CIA employees are planning. Meanwhile, another concoctor of fictions behind the scenes, Don DeLillo, adds “the compression and numinous sheen,” reveals “the secret symmetries,” not only in the lives of Oswald and Everette, but also in the lives of all the other fictional and semi-fictional characters in the plot of Libra.
THE USSR: THE MISFIT ABROAD
October, 1959. Bright-eyed boy in never-never land, writing in his “Historic Diary.” He can barely spell the words “and” or “the” right, but does that mean he’s dumb? No, he’s dyslexic. “He could not clearly see the picture that is called a word.” In Norman Mailer’s biography, Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (1995), he re-spelled all the misspelled passages in Oswald’s writings, and the boy came out looking not so ignorant at all.
In Moscow, out of the blue, Lee tells his Intourist guide Rimma that he wants to stay in the Soviet Union, apply for Soviet citizenship. She is flabbergasted. He meets with some official, tries to explain to him why he wishes to remain in the glorious USSR, vanguard of the worldwide struggle of the workers and peasants. After carefully checking that the door is closed, that bureaucrat tells him in confidence: “USSR is great only in literature. Go home, my friend, and take our good wishes with you.” For his twentieth birthday, two days after his arrival, Rimma gives him a copy of Dostoevsky’s novel, Идиот (The Idiot).
No way in hell Lee Oswald would ever read that novel in Russian, no way he could read Dostoevsky, with his complex, jagged, nervous style, with his nineteenth century literary vocabulary—not even after he had lived in Minsk for two years and already spoke the language, at least at a rudimentary level. No way. I see this gift as an inside joke on the part of the KGB officers, who were giggling in the background of that scene—ha-ha, let’s give the idiot a copy of The Idiot—the same men who, a mere four years later, on November 22, 1963, after hearing news about the dull young American they had once come across, sat in their offices at the Lubyanka, messing their pants.
As if to prove his good intentions, Lee next goes to the American embassy, where he does some very stupid and rash things. He renounces his U.S. citizenship and hands over his American passport; he won’t need it any more. Burning all the bridges to his past life. Except that, only a few years later, when he changes his mind, he has to find a way to build those bridges back. And that, once again, is a leitmotif in the confused life of Lee Harvey Oswald: riding the subway train of random behavior, never deciding exactly what stop to take, where to get off, or get back on, or who he wants to be or where he wants to go.
From the “Historic Diary”: “I leave [American] Embassy, elated at this showdown. I’m sure Russians will except [sic] me after this sign of my faith in them.” Accept my life, accept my life, accept my life. Lee was soon surprised to learn that nobody in the USSR was happy with his decision to defect. Nobody. Most of the officials he dealt with wanted only to get rid of him, this in line with the Russian propensity to avoid taking responsibility in ticklish cases. “Does Mother Russia want this boy? He was useful as a radar specialist at a U.S. base. What do we do with him here? Is it conceivable we might send him to the building on Kutuzovsky Prospect, where he would be trained, genuinely educated, in Marx and Lenin, microphotography and secret writing, Russian and English, rebuilt so to speak, given a new identity, sent back to the West as an illegal?”
No. Mother Russia does not want this boy. “This was not agent material. You want self-command and mettle, a steadiness of will. This boy played Ping-Pong in his head. But Alek [KGB guy] liked him and would arrange something decent. Has to be far from Moscow. A place where there are no foreign journalists, no chance to use him for propaganda. Give him a nice apartment, a well-paying job, a sweet subsidy in the name of the Red Cross.”
So Lee was sent to Minsk, capital of Belarus. Not, however, until he had cut his wrist in a real or fake suicide attempt and ended up in Moscow’s Botkin Hospital. Libra makes much of the workings of coincidence, and many people will never accept the coincidental deaths of so many persons on the fringe of the events of the Kennedy assassination. But coincidence is everywhere. Here’s the bodyguard Tony Astorina, speaking to the high-level gangster Carmine Latta midway in the book: “Speaking of Cuba, a couple of weeks ago I dream I’m swimming on the Capri roof with Jack Ruby. The next day I’m on Bourbon Street, who do I fucking see? You talk about coincidence.”
Don DeLillo, coincidentally, lived only a few short blocks from where Lee and Marguerite once lived in the Bronx. He quite likely passed young Lee in the streets in those days; had they only known what was to come they might have greeted one another.
In 1967-68, when I was a graduate student in Russian at Tulane, I must have driven many times past the New Orleans apartment where Lee once lived, on Magazine Street. I surely stepped on his former footprints along Canal Street. During my first stay in the Soviet Union (summer of 1972), I ended up, after a bout with dysentery, a patient in Botkin Hospital. Later, in the late eighties and nineties, when running student study tours into the Soviet Union for Miami University, I frequently had an overnight stay in Helsinki, Finland, at the Klaus Kurki Hotel, the same hotel where Lee stayed in 1959, while awaiting a visa that would admit him to the USSR. Coincidence.
So the KGB and all the bureaucrats in Moscow “footballed” (сфутболили) the kid, passed on potential trouble to distant Minsk. Now, had Oswald been the type to satisfy himself with the bourgeois dream—a nice place to live, a job, home and hearth, marriage and children—Minsk was the best place imaginable for him. Back home in the U.S. what were his prospects? Zilch. Not even a high school education, no training for any kind of decent job, zero talent for making friends and influencing people. What about women? He never had got anywhere with women in his American years and not likely he ever would; for he had so little to offer.
But in Minsk they set him up with a job working at a factory making radios. They provided him with a nice subsidy check every month and a nice place to live. Of course, he did not want to work making radios, he slacked off at his job, just as he would at every job he ever held. In the U.S. they would fire him for his work ethic, but not in the Soviet Union. Then again, here, in Russia, he was something special, a man from the Cinderella world of America, so he did fine with women. After a very short courtship he ended up marrying a local beauty, Marina Prusakova. The newlyweds did not get along, for who could get along with his sociopathic personality? But, had they remained in Minsk, he could have indulged himself in any number of extra-marital affairs. Who’s better than the kid, heh? His apartment with balcony overlooking the Svisloch River was nothing special by American standards, but by Soviet standards it was way above average. As it turned out, this apartment was the nicest place the kid ever lived in his short life.
But, notwithstanding the birth of his first child, June, the kid was not one to let home and hearth interfere with his big plans. As usual, he did not know exactly what those plans entailed, but, as usual again, he assumed that he, loser Lee, was destined for some kind of greatness—staying here in provincial Minsk was a dead end. So after two years in the Soviet Union he managed to get his passport back and returned, with his wife and child, to the U.S. He feared that maybe some consequences awaited him back home for his disloyal behavior, but there were none. Mother America re-embraced her prodigal son. Maybe back here, at last, the man with no identity would finally discover who he was. “That’s what they want, isn’t it, these people who live in corners inside themselves, in blinds and hidey-holes? A second and safer identity. Teach us how to live, they say, as someone else.” Is that what Lee Oswald wanted? You might have asked him but you would receive no satisfactory answer, for Lee did not really know what he wanted.
Newly arrived in Fort Worth, strolling one evening past a department store, Marina and Lee, June in his arms, come upon a television set in the show window, broadcasting live. “It was the world gone inside out. They were gaping back at themselves from the TV screen.” Marina was astonished. “She looked at Lee and June in the window, then turned to see them on the sidewalk. She kept walking out of the picture and coming back. She was amazed every time she saw herself return.” Lee’s reaction to seeing himself on TV is not described, but quite possibly this is the one thing that he wants: to be both on TV and not on TV at the same moment, and to be the director behind the camera, setting up the action for The Life of Lee Oswald, Secret Agent.
Back at the time Oswald was planning to defect to the USSR he heard rumors about a false defector program run by the Office of Naval Intelligence. “The whole scheme was written with him in mind. He half expected to be approached by Naval Intelligence. It was easy to believe they knew about his pro-Soviet remarks and Russian-language newspaper. They’d train him intensively. He’d be a real defector posing as a false defector posing as a real defector. Ha ha.” But what he’d really be was what he always had been, all his life, a loser/dreamer playing Cowboys and Indians in his own solipsistic mind.
TEXAS, NEW ORLEANS: THE MISFIT RETURNS, ENTERS INEVITABILITY
Black is white is black and left is right and right is left, and neither are quite right, and some things are true, but some are truer than true. That is a mélange of quotations from various passages in Libra. The researcher Nicholas Branch thinks, “There is enough mystery in the facts as we know them, enough of conspiracy, coincidence, loose ends, dead ends, multiple interpretations. There is no need, he thinks, to invent the grand and masterful scheme, the plot that reaches flawlessly in a dozen directions.”
The crackpot Guy Bannister, anti-Castro crusader, speaks with T.J. Mackey, one of the fictional characters (renegade CIA) who is to become instrumental in bringing about the assassination. “I believe deeply there are forces in the air that compel men to act. Call it history or necessity or anything you like. What do you sense in the air? That’s all I’m saying, T-Jay. Is there something riding in the air that you feel on your body, prickling your skin like warm sweat?”
The kid’s back home, where he runs into the inevitability of the thing hanging somehow in the air; it’s a thing that has to be done. Here’s Carmine Latta in conversation, the gangster who yearns to resume his Cuban business dealings, just the way they were under Batista:
“The President crossed the line when he put out word he wanted Castro dead. Let me tell you something.”
“I want to tell you a little thing you should always remember. If somebody’s giving you trouble, again, again, again, again, somebody with ambitions, somebody with a greed for territory, the first thing you consider is go right to the top.”
“In other words you take action at the highest level.”
“That’s where they’re letting it get out of hand.”
“In other words you bypass.”
“You clean out the number one position.”
“In other words you arrange it so there’s a new man at the top who gets the message and makes a change in the policy.”
“You cut off the head, the tail doesn’t wag.”
The primary contention in Libra about what “really” happened in November of 1963 is that a lot of different men—former big players in Cuba, Bay of Pigs veterans who hated Kennedy, former CIA operatives who thought the President had to pay for cozying up to Castro, and others, perhaps many others—were plotting all over the place, determined to kill John Kennedy. By 1963 there was that inevitability in the air; one way or another Kennedy had to die. That was among the things that were truer than true.
DeLillo goes to great effort to reinforce that sense of inevitability throughout the novel, but I’m not convinced. Read the wonderful biography of Huey P. Long by T. Harry Williams, read where the author describes another sort of inevitability in the air of the 1930s; Huey Long had to die. Nobody knew who would do it, but everyone assumed someone would. That I can believe; not so much the same thing in 1963 with our President. At any rate, in the fiction that we are reading the inevitability is paramount, and loser Lee Oswald floats about in the atmosphere of that feeling, himself unaware of it.
Meanwhile a group of conspirators, the CIA renegades led by Win Everette in Texas are grooming Lee for his patsy role, the kid who will take the rap. The conspirators had first learned of the existence of this boy defector now back in the U.S. from George de Mohrenschildt, another of the real characters in the book who is more believable as a fictional character. Mohrenschildt, a speaker of Russian, had met Lee Oswald at a gathering of Russian exiles in Texas.
Still ignorant of the conspiracy, Lee goes about readjusting, in his own unique way, to living back home. He takes a series of menial jobs, doesn’t do the work, loses the jobs. In January, 1963, he mail-orders a snub-nose .38 pistol from a firm in LA; in March he sends away to Chicago for an Italian carbine rifle with a sniper’s scope. Both weapons arrive the same day.
Win Everette is busily constructing a reliable past for his patsy. “Through his contacts in Little Havana, Everett had planted a cryptic news item in an exile magazine published in New Jersey. The story, from an unnamed source, concerned an operation run in July, 1961 by the Office of Naval Intelligence out of Guantánamo, the U.S. base near the eastern end of Cuba. The story was fabricated but the plan itself was real, involving the assassination of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. This news item would be found among the subject’s effects after the failed attempt on the life of the President.”
Note that Everette’s plan from the beginning was to shake things up, to perpetrate a failed attempt on the life of Kennedy, but as the plot burgeoned, then progressed, the word “failed” somehow was left out of the equation. The thing of the inevitability proposed not a stray bullet, but a fatal shot.
The conspirators plot on, but fate and coincidence are also busily at work, and Everette soon becomes aware of a striking truth: “It was no longer possible to hide from the fact that Lee Oswald existed independent of the plot.” T.J. Mackey picks the lock at the apartment where Oswald lived briefly in New Orleans, at 4907 Magazine Street, and “What Mackey learned about him in a brief tour of his apartment made Everette feel displaced. It produced a sensation of the eeriest panic, gave him a glimpse of the fiction he’d been devising, a fiction living prematurely in the world.” In other words, Everette’s fiction is anachronistic before he has completed it; Fate has already concocted the necessary detail.
Mackey discovers, among other things, Oswald’s correspondence with the national director of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, the leaflets Oswald had been handing out on the streets (“Hands Off Cuba”), a novel, The Idiot, in Russian (and most certainly still unread), several fabricated documents—a draft card in the name of Lee H. Oswald and another in the name of Alek James Hidell. The kid has been hard at work, playing Cowboys and Indians.
There are the true things, and then there are the truer than the true. “There is always another level, another secret, a way in which the heart breeds a deception so mysterious and complex it can only be taken for a deeper kind of truth.” What is a conspiracy? “If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us . . . . . . But maybe not.” Nicholas Branch’s research has led him to conclude that “the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance. Deft men and fools, ambivalence and fixed will and what the weather was like.” Fate playing games, laughing in the process.
For a time the conspirators lose track of their patsy; he has disappeared. Then suddenly the kid appears, of all places, at the offices of Guy Bannister in New Orleans—U.S. headquarters for the anti-Castro movement—where he, Oswald the Castro lover, asks for a job as some sort of secret agent, claiming that he has experience in fabricating aliases. This, in terms of verisimilitude, rivals, e.g., the story of how Elvis once dropped in on President Nixon, all drugged up as usual and asking for a job as a narcotics agent.
Still working free of charge and independently on the fictional background that Everette wanted created for him, Lee takes a potshot in April at General Edwin Walker, shoots through a window at his house and just misses killing him. This is not DeLillo’s fiction, but almost certainly fact. Above and beyond all idea of literary fiction, there is a story fabricating itself here, a story full of coincidences too unbelievable to be used in fiction. There are true stories, and then there are the truer than true.
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
Where were you? Here’s where I was. I was in the U.S. Army, studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California. On that particular day they took us in buses into downtown Monterey, to the Steinbeck Theater, where we watched a film of a Russian opera, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. From the libretto: “At last, at last, Heaven has sent us a sunny day, what air, what a sky! It could even be May, what delight it would be, delight indeed, to spend our whole day here, we’ll not see another day like this, no, no not for eons of time.” Our teachers, most of whom were old, who came out of the First Emigration—right after the Russian Revolution and Civil War—went with us to watch the opera. Seated beside me was one of them, Count Leuchtenberg. I’ve already lent this scene, in a number of variants, to characters in my fictions.
We watched the movie; nothing untoward was apparently in the air. We watched them sing the opera. The movie ended, we got up to go, but then the projectionist stuck a handwritten note in the lens and projected it onto the screen: “President Kennedy felled by assassin’s bullet in Dallas.” That was it; no details. We looked at each other, milled around; no one knew what to say. Standing next to me, Count Leuchtenberg, like most of our teachers, had little English. He asked me, in Russian, “What is this, what does it mean, this word, ‘felled.’ I told him that the President apparently was shot, and he ‘fell.’ Was he dead or alive? I didn’t know. Nobody did.
They put us back in the buses posthaste and we returned to the Presidio, which was then locked down, like military bases all over the U.S. Nobody knew what to expect next; possibly a nuclear assault from the USSR. The only television was in the orderly room, so we went there to watch. The announcement came on: the President was dead. Not long after that a suspect was in custody, and that suspect had a Russian wife. This news set off another of our teachers, a bent old man who went by the sobriquet “Shaky Jake.” Stomping around with his arms folded behind his back, Shaky went into a tirade in Russian: “How dare they? How dare they? Just because he has a Russian wife they say he shot the President. How dare they?”
Years later I learned that while he was living in Minsk Oswald sometimes went to the opera. His favorite was Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. Coincidence. So that while we were in the Steinbeck Theater, listening to the arias, he may well have been nervously humming one of them, as he aimed his Italian carbine out the window of the Texas School Book Depository. Here’s another coincidence, this one almost unbelievable. Ruth Paine, with whom Marina was staying in Dallas, had mentioned that the chronically unemployed Lee needed a job. A neighbor lady, Linnie Mae Randle, said that her brother worked at a book warehouse in downtown Dallas. They may be hiring there.
So it turned out, they were. Going to extremes to make its garbled plot work, defying all odds of probability, Sheer Fate got the kid employed in the perfect spot, on the perfect floor of the building, just in time for the President’s visit to Dallas. Did the CIA, or its renegade officers set him up there? No. At the time he took that job nobody could possibly have known about the motorcade route through downtown Dallas.
Coincidence? “Nicholas Branch has a roster of the dead. A printout of the names of witnesses, informers, investigators, people linked to Lee H. Oswald, people linked to Jack Ruby, all conveniently and suggestively dead.” George de Mohrenschildt, David Ferrie, Guy Bannister, etc., etc. A lot of them died violent deaths, but “In 1979 a House select committee determined there was nothing statistically abnormal about the death rate of those who were connected in some way to the events of November 22.” Want something for comparison? Say you loved the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” released in the year 1975. How many of its cast members are still alive, and how many dead? How many died violent deaths? There’s a site on the Internet where you can check this out. Life is precarious.
The plot of Libra, as concerns the events of November 22, does not appear to differ that much from what “apparently” happened. The kid shot three times (apparently), hitting Kennedy once in the neck, missing him once but hitting the Texas governor, then blowing off the top of Kennedy’s head with the third shot. In Libra Oswald hits Kennedy once, hits governor Connelly, then misses his third shot. A Bay of Pigs veteran, the Cuban Raymo (a fictitious character) takes the final shot from ambush, the head shot, makes it, then escapes. In “reality” the kid goes back to his lodgings, gets his thirty-eight, wanders randomly down the street (where did he think he was going?), shoots a policeman who tries to question him. That Oswald shot the policeman Tibbett there seems to be no doubt. He did it. Then he ducks into a movie theater. In the Libra plot the conspirators have told Lee to reconnoiter with them in the theater. They will drive him to Galveston, where he will meet up with David Ferrie, who will fly him out of the country. But they have sent another loser/nonentity, Wayne Elko, to the theater to shoot Oswald in the back on the head. Wayne has no time, however, to eliminate their patsy, because the police arrive on the scene almost immediately and arrest Oswald.
THE RHYTHMS OF AMERICAN SPEECH
Libra could be read as a kind of guidebook on American speech: here’s the way people talked, still talk, in American English. DeLillo’s ear is perfectly tuned to pick up the jargon, and that adds to the atmosphere of unreal reality that pervades the novel. Here is young Lee, moving amidst the teenage world of the early fifties in the Bronx, hearing someone say, “A two-tone Rocket Olds with wire wheels,” being hassled by Scalzo and Nicky Black, two other losers just like himself.
“But how come you never talk to me, Tex?” [says Scalzo]
“Let’s hear you drawl,” Nicky Black said.
“I say all right.” [nonsense language, equivalent to something like “Hey bob-a-ree-bah”]
“Talk to Richie. He’s talking nice.”
“But let’s hear you drawl. No shit. I been looking forward.” [truncated sentences, typical all thru Libra]
Scalzo and Nicky Black were ten yards behind.
“He sucks Clorets.”
“Bad-breath kissing sweet in seconds.” [advertising slogans of the times]
“One and a two.”
“I say all right.”
“One two cha cha cha.” [popular dances of the times]
“He don’t know dick.”
“I mean look out.”
“But how come he won’t talk to me?”
“I say all right.”
“But talk to us.”
“We’re talking bad or what?”
“But say something.”
“Think fast, Tex.” [followed immediately by a punch, or by throwing something at you]
“I say all right.”
Here’s Jack Karlinsky, a lowlife mobster, persuading Jack Ruby, one and the same type, to kill Oswald.
“Jack, I’m sure you hear the same thing in the street I’ve been hearing for almost two days. The man who kills that communist bastard is saving the city of Dallas from world shame. This is what they’re saying in the streets.”
“What is Carmine [Latta, high-level mobster involved obliquely in the assassination] saying?”
“Good point. Because here you have an ally. Here you have protection and support. Carmine himself brought up the subject of the loan. I think you’ll be delighted with the terms.”
“And for this?”
“For this you undertake to rid the city.”
“In other words.”
“Jack, you’re a floater all your life. This is a chance you put your fist around something solid. You want to end your life selling potato peelers in Plano, Texas? Build something. Make a name.”
“So what you’re saying, Jack.”
“Take him off the calendar.”
“Turn him into a crowd,” Karlinsky said sadly.
Marguerite Oswald and Jack Ruby are perfectly rendered as fictional personages in Libra. DeLillo’s portrayal of them must certainly come close to how they really were, crackpots, both of them. The author achieves this perfection of characterization by perfect description of their random, chaotic movement through life, and by showing us the haphazard, distorted speech by which they express themselves. Here’s Jack Ruby in the midst of all the chaos right after the assassination.
“A burly man moved through the crowd introducing out-of-town reporters to Dallas cops. He handed out a brand-new card he’d printed for his club. Who could it be but Jack Ruby? It was a card he was proud of, with a line drawing of a champagne glass and a bare-ass girl in black stockings. It was a come-on to the average patron, but with class. Nobody challenged Jack’s presence in the assembly room. He had the ability to carry a domineering look into a building. He was looking for a radio reporter named Joe Long because he had a dozen corned-beef sandwiches in the car which he planned to take to the crew at KLIF working into the night to report this frantic tale to the unbelieving city . . . Jack was playing newsman and tipster tonight. He was in complete charge of mentally reacting. He had a pencil and pad at the ready, just in case he caught a remark he could give to NBC.”
Here is Marguerite Oswald, blathering her way along, to anyone who will listen, in the final pages of the novel.
“I will time his movements on the fatal day. I will interview every witness. I am not speaking just to be speaking [but she really is]. I know as the accused mother I must have facts. Listen to me. Do you know I took Russian classes at the library? I went and studied once a week on my one day off, hoping in my heart that Lee would contact me someday, that I could talk to Marina in a normal way. Listen to me. Listen. I cannot live on donation dribs and drabs. Marina has a contract and a ghostwriter. She refused to wear the shorts I bought. And this boy on a Sunday in Fort Worth was not packed to go anywhere and the next day he was gone with his wife and baby to a job in Dallas, overnight, without notice to his former employer or his mother. A job in photography where the details are not known. You have to wonder. Who arranged the life of Lee Harvey Oswald? It goes on and on and on. Lee had a stamp collection. Lee swam at the Y. I used to see him on Ewing Street with his hair all wet. Hurry home dear heart or you will catch your death. I am not letter-perfect but I have managed, judge. I have worked in many homes for fine families. I have seen a gentleman strike a wife in front of me. There is killing in fine homes on occasion. This boy and his Russian wife did not have a telephone or television in America. So that is another myth cut down. Listen to me.” And on and on and on and on. American blather, nonstop.
NONENTITY PILED UPON NONENTITY
The title of the book is Libra, because that is Oswald’s astrological sign. There are several mentions of this in the book, explaining why the title is suitable, but a better title might be American Nonentity. The action describes how a concatenation of losers and nobodies, led by one Super Nobody, come together, much aided and abetted by Fate, to kill an American President. Of course, it’s so preposterous that it could not possibly have happened this way: not the way it happens in Libra, and not the way it happened in “reality.” It is as if playing in the background score of the whole Libra libretto and the whole “real” events surrounding November 22, 1963, were the nonsensical messages broadcast during the Bay of Pigs invasion by Radio Swan, “located on a tiny guano island”—the gibberish meant to discombobulate Castro’s armed forces: the boy is in the yellow house, the one-eyed fish are biting this evening, and it’s a perfect day for bananafish, or, to repeat the leitmotifs that show up all through Libra, left is right and right is left, black is white is black, and some true things are much, much truer than other true things, even if those true things are true.
“Curtain rods found on shelf in garage of Ruth Paine.” A metaphor for the whole random mess that is the plot of the book, for these curtain rods are lonely. “There they are. The picture shows no more or less. But Branch feels there is a loneliness, a strange desolation trapped there. Why do these photographs have a power to disturb him, make him sad? Flat, pale, washed in time, suspended outside the particularized gist of this or that era, arguing nothing, clarifying nothing, lonely. Can a photograph be lonely?”
The bleak, blurred unreality of the colossal disarray revolving around November 22, 1963. Does it come into focus with time? No. Watch Marina Oswald in interviews, fifty years after the fact, still agonizing, still trying to figure something out. Anything. That has an air of unreality. Watch interviews with her grown daughters, June and Rachel. They are remarkably intelligent, well-spoken young ladies. But when they begin talking about their father, some of the gnawing sense of loneliness creeps back into their speech. June complains, e.g., that she has no birth certificate. It was among the many items confiscated as evidence after the assassination, and the government refuses to return it to her. Imagine that lonely document, moldering somewhere in a government file. Imagine what it looks like in its original Russian. Oswald wanted to name her June Marina Oswald, but Russian tradition demands that the middle name be based on the father’s name. It is called the patronymic, and if you’re a Russian you’re not allowed not to have a patronymic. Even if you’re born illegitimate, somehow a father has to be produced. June’s name on that document would look very strange, almost eerie to a Russian: Июнь (or did they transliterate the original from English: Джун?) Леевна Освальд (June Leevna Oswald).
WHAT HAPPENED AND WHO DUNNIT?
It’s fifty-seven years now, and we’ll never know how exactly it played out. We can sift through all the “evidence,” study the doctored snapshot that Marina took of armed vigilante Lee, holding his weapons, ever playing Cowboys and Indians—wait, now they say the photo was not doctored—on the back of which Marina wrote in Russian, “The Fascist hunter, ha, ha.” We can study the dreams of eyewitnesses after the assassination and after the Jack Ruby fiasco follow-up killing. We can ponder mad Ruby’s final days, when he believed all his brothers and sisters would be killed on account of what he did, when he imagined all the Jews of America were being put in kill machines, slaughtered in enormous numbers, when he believed people distorted every word that came out of his mouth, since “there is a process that takes place between the saying of a word and when they pretend to hear it correctly but actually change it to mean what they want.”
My own opinion, for what it’s worth. Oswald and Oswald alone, loser Lee killed our President. There was no conspiracy, no one helped him. And no one but voices in his own wacko brain put Jack Ruby up to killing Oswald. But, you object, that’s simply not possible, such a nonentity, such a vicious little nerd of a kid, no way he could do that all by himself. Nor could Ruby, an armed man, be allowed so close to the proceedings on the day Oswald was being moved. It simply lacks all verisimilitude. Well, the fact is that God loves humankind and usually takes good care of us, but once in a while He’s tired, or in a bad mood, and He turns things over temporarily to his twin brother, a jokey sort of guy with a loud irritating laugh. Just for the fun of it that Evil Joker sets things up, working against all rules of logic and probability, cackling his way through the plot. He’s the one responsible for the coincidences, the totally impossible things that could not have happened but did. You want somebody to blame for the Kennedy assassination? Blame God’s nasty twin brother.
Maybe the best way to end this review is with a picture of Shaky Jake, stalking about the orderly room at the Presidio of Monterey—long, long dead now, Shaky, but this is his ghost we’re seeing, a spectre from out of an incongruous past, truer than the truest true—hands behind his back, shaking even more than usual, screaming out his plaint for all the world to hear, in Russian: Как они смеют, как они смеют, How dare they?
U.R. Bowie, author of Cogitations on the White Whale, and On Other Matters of Inimitable Purulence