Sunday, June 17, 2018

Oswald's Tale (1995)

I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist when it comes to the assassination of John Kennedy, but I sure know the rhythms of the story now. I noticed it when I read Stephen King's 11/22/63 novel a few years ago, and again as I revisited Norman Mailer's lengthy journalistic treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald, focusing on his time in Russia. Once again Mailer is working with Lawrence Schiller, his collaborator on The Executioner's Song. With the Soviet Union over and a temporary opening of Russian government in 1993, Mailer and Schiller gained access to KGB documents regarding Oswald's time living in Russia from late 1959 to 1962. They also conducted interviews with people who knew or were aware of him there. Of course the KGB monitored Oswald closely. Even now, nobody really knows what he was doing there. He might have been a crazy mixed-up guy or anything. He was followed around and bugs were placed in his living quarters. What emerges is a much better sense of this mysterious historical figure, for better or worse filtered through Mailer's novelistic instincts. I think on balance it's for the better, because approaching Oswald as a literary character does seem to yield insights into the even greater mystery of the assassination. Following his movements and public statements closely, in combination with the KGB transcripts of his domestic disputes with his Russian wife Marina (who bore him two daughters and of course moved back with him to the US), does seem to provide a clearer view of Oswald. He was unbelievably young, first—just 20 when he defected to the USSR, just 24 when he was gunned down two days after the JFK assassination. So we start from Minsk, in the first half of this book, and then travel all the familiar ways through Cuba and Dallas and New Orleans and Mexico and finally back to Dallas again. One more time we see the Montgomery Ward warehouse down the street. Somehow I know this story. I'm the right age cohort, plus osmosis. People are still trying to figure out the Jack the Ripper murders too, so there's probably little relief in sight. Mailer is persuasive—first that there is a mystery to be solved, and second that it remains less than fully explained, and finally, that Lee Harvey Oswald, followed shortly by Jack Ruby (and 38 years later by 19 terrorists), may be among the luckiest sons of bitches who ever lived in terms of doing one or two things exactly right. I don't know what happened in Dallas that day, nobody does, but following Mailer the lone assassin theory now doesn't seem any less likely than any of the others, given that nothing in this episode is likely. Mailer wants to quarrel with Gerald Posner, whose Case Closed was new at the time, and I like that. He pokes some holes in Posner's case, but it's easy to see they could well be only small holes. The mystery endures. Indeed, that's Mailer's subtitle here: An American Mystery. Worth reading for further osmosis.

In case it's not at the library.

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