Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery
By Norman Mailer
Random House. 848 pp. $30
By Max Holland
In a 1992 letter to The New York Times, William Manchester put his finger on why the Kennedy assassination continues to fascinate and puzzle us. It may seem odd, Manchester wrote, but there is an aesthetic principle at root. Put “the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, [and] it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President’s death with meaning . . . ”
In his 26th book Norman Mailer accepts – no – embraces the aesthetic challenge Manchester identified. It is a challenge, interestingly enough, that Manchester (along with the Warren Commission) had no small part in creating. Rereading The Death of a President almost 30 years after its publication, one is struck by the author’s palpable, barely suppressed fury at Lee Harvey Oswald for killing the most powerful man in the world and robbing Manchester’s generation of its first president. The assassin is beneath contempt, a callow nonentity with a mail-order rifle. Could even the most talented writer rescue Oswald from this fate and give this killer back his humanity?
Mailer and his collaborator, Lawrence Schiller, did just that for Gary Gilmore 16 years ago in The Executioner’s Song. But the task here is even more difficult, given the layers of cant and crud that have accumulated over 30 years. The best part of Oswald’s Tale, covering the 2½ years he spent in Russia (1959-1962), recalls the movie Citizen Kane, for the approaches are similar. Like Welles, Mailer cleanses his subject by refusing to adopt an authoritative narrative; the account is an exploration rather than a solution, and the posture works brilliantly. Mailer painstakingly draws upon may voices and sources – interviews with friends and family, KGB reports on this strange American, diplomatic cables, and Oswald’s self-described “historic” diary – to assemble a compelling mosaic. No one of these rough, sometimes irregular pieces presents Oswald in the round, but the accumulated effort, when one draws back, is stunning. Perhaps it is an illusion shared by the writer and reader, but Oswald does begin to be comprehensible, a tragic rather than absurd figure.
Mailer/Schiller spent six months in Moscow and Minsk gathering information and impressions; it was what Mailer calls “the equivalent of an Oklahoma land-grab for an author.” They were armed with a promise from the Belorussian KGB that it would open its files on Oswald in Minsk, and although the materials were less comprehensive than promised (or imagined?), they enabled Mailer to reconstruct an important and largely undocumented part of Oswald’s life. Oswald lived in a bell jar, and before the state security organs decided that he was boring, no movement, conversation, or contact was too insignificant to be recorded by the KGB – literally. Observation reports and tape recordings of Mariana and Lee are used sparingly but to great effect. The end of the Cold War also meant that the Oswalds’ Russian and Belorussian acquaintances were free to talk about the defector in their midst, and these testimonies are persuasive more than 30 years after the KGB warned friends, former lovers, and enemies alike to keep their mouths shut.
Shortly after Oswald leaves Minsk, however, the book begins to falter. So much so that one is tempted to believe that the author’s original conception was Oswald in Minsk rather than Oswald’s Tale, and that Mailer began the project fully expecting the Soviet archives to reveal that Oswald was working for a secret agency (CIA or KGB). But Mailer became utterly convinced that no one sent Oswald to spy on Russia, and that the KGB had no interest whatsoever in recruiting him once he arrived uninvited. The only secret power center Oswald worked for was the one “in the privacy of his own mind,” Mailer writes.
Conceptions often must be altered in midstream, of course, and Mailer musters a good argument for forging ahead. He likens the chapters on Moscow and Minsk to a base camp, from which he will launch an assault on the “greatest mountain of mystery in the 20th century.” Yet that expedition proves to be nothing more than a running, occasionally amusing or interesting, commentary on testimony excised from the exhaustive Warren Commission hearings – some of which is reprinted – along with so many excerpts from Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s 1977 biography, Marina and Lee, that she deserves a royalty cut. There is, literally, nothing new here.
To Mailer’s credit, he cast aside his initial prejudices and wrote a work that concludes, albeit grudgingly, that Oswald “had the character to kill Kennedy, and that he probably did it alone.” This was not virgin territory, after all, for Mailer. He has publicly praised different conspiracy theories for years, and Oliver Stone in particular for supposedly driving out nonsense (“the mind-stultifying myth of the lone assassin”) with superior nonsense. Yet ultimately Mailer lacks the guts to say what needs to be said besides the fact that Oswald was the assassin: The Warren Commission got it right.
This review first appeared in Civilization, May/June 1995
© 1995 by Max Holland