“Oswald even looks like different people from one photograph to the next. He is solid, frail, thin-lipped, broad-featured, extroverted, shy and bank-clerkish, all, with the columned neck of a fullback. He looks like everybody. In two photos taken in the military he is a grim killer and a baby-face hero. In another photo he sits in profile with a group of fellow Marines on a rattan mat under palm trees. Four or five men face the camera. They all look like Oswald. Branch thinks they look more like Oswald than the figure in profile, officially identified as him.”
A passage from the novel “Libra” by Don DeLillo.
Published by Viking on August 15, 1988, the gripping, 458 page novel “Libra” was written by National Book Award winning, (White Noise) and PEN/ Faulkner fiction award recipient, (Mao II) author Don DeLillo. The primary focus of the book deals with the life of the infamous Lee Harvey Oswald, and provides the reader with speculative prose as to the particular events that helped culminate in the assassination of America’s 35th President, John F. Kennedy. According to DeLillo, he spent a period of three years researching and writing the book. He travelled to Dallas, Fort Worth, Miami, and New Orleans, all places written about in the novel, in order to get a feel for the actual hospitals, houses, libraries, streets, and schools, he would be writing about so as to give more authenticity to the characters he populated those locations with.
DeLillo didn’t conduct interviews with those who witnessed the horrific assassination, nor with important historical individuals from the time period of the 1960s. He does, however, give weight and synthesizes numerous aspects of other conspiracy theories that had been written about, up until that point. He listened to audiotapes of Lee Harvey Oswald talking on a radio show, as well as watched film that was shot in Dallas on the day of the assassination. One tremendous source of information came from the exhibits and testimony contained within the twenty-six volumes of the Warren Commission – an investigative body which had been formed to look into the assassination of the President. Where the real, known facts end, the author creates a narrative that delves further into the unknown and helps to fill in what, in his view, might have been the missing pieces of that unthinkable event; pieces that will probably never see the light of day.
The novel moves episodically and involves two distinct time lines that will come together in the closing pages. One line of narrative follows the meticulous recreation of Oswald’s life, starting with him as a young boy living with his mother, in the Bronx, New York. The pages DeLillo writes about Oswald create a believable and complex individual. Dreams of greatness permeate his thoughts, but yet he has trouble keeping steady employment. He reads college level books, yet can’t write a coherent sentence. Oswald dreams of a world where utopian ideals are the norm, yet he beats his wife, and has an almost obsessive love of firearms. At one point, he even attempts, but fails, to assassinate the right wing firebrand, Major General Edwin A. Walker. This first portion of the novel deals with: Oswald dropping out of high school in New Orleans; his stint in the military as a Marine at a U-2 base in Japan; as a Soviet defector, where he is found not living the life he dreamed about, but instead as a factory worker in Minsk; and finally immigrating back to America where he begins his associations with C.I.A. men, and other shadowy figures, all the way to his job at the Texas School Book Depository and leading up to the tragic day in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.
The other story-line deals with the men-behind the scenes that are orchestrating what leads up to the assassination of the President. One of those men is the character of C.I.A. agent, Walter Everett Jr., known as Win. The time is April, 1963 and Everett has begun formulating a bold plan of action which, he hopes, will cause an anti-Castro movement to sweep across America. The historical context of the novel is the C.I.A. operation known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Thinking that air cover would be provided to help the Cuban exiles overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime, the support never came, thus destroying the mission. In DeLillo’s novel, men such as Everett are obsessed with Cuba and paranoid about communism. They want to make Kennedy regret his decision to pull the air support. Initially the plan is to stage a fake assassination attempt during Kennedy’s visit to Miami, a close call for the President, which will be blamed on Cuban President Fidel Castro.
But, Win takes it a step further. He wants to create a fictitious character that will shoulder all of the blame, while the real assassins disappear into the shadows without leaving a trail. In order to carry out this goal, Everett creates fake and forged documents, as well as doctored pictures; however, Oswald is already creating the sort of lone gunman life and experiences of the perfect scapegoat by frequently changing his name and the sort of identity he wants to be associated with.
Everett and Oswald are not alone in this tangled web of intrigue that DeLillo creates using actual events. T.J. Mackey, a fellow conspirator, is a discontented C.I.A. agent. He is the one who brings Oswald into the mix and guides him along into thinking that the plot to kill President Kennedy is a real one. Mackey does not want Kennedy involved in any further mission to invade Cuba. In addition, there are numerous other characters that populate the literary landscape: exiled Cubans, Frank and Raymo; Marguerite, Oswald’s mother – her character helps to give the reader a better psychological profile of the anti-social man. We also encounter the deeply in debt to organized crime, Dallas nightclub owner, Jack Ruby who is a compelling character. He feels that gunning down Oswald will be viewed as a heroic act, and help to restore the reputation of the city after the assassination. Lee is befriended by David Ferrie. He is an anti-communist, hashish smoking, constantly conversing, astrologically minded, pill popper. Ferrie suffers from Alopecia universalis, a condition which causes the loss of all hair on the body including eyebrows and lashes. There is also: petroleum geologist, George de Mohrenschildt, who continually factors into discussions about conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy’s assassination; fictitious Mafia boss, Carmine Latta; former F.B.I agent, Guy Bannister; and Marina, Oswald’s wife; and countless others that factor into the story on both a small and large scale throughout the novel.
The character who serves as a narrator for the timelines is the researcher Nicholas Branch. He is a an analyst, hired by the C.I.A. to write a secret history of the assassination, what supposedly really happened, to be read in house only. He appears occasionally throughout the book. His job is not an enviable one, as he must sift through countless pieces of evidence, both factual and physical, a great deal of it miscellaneous, in order to attempt to write a cohesive history. Making his project even more burdensome is the involvement of a mysterious, unseen character Branch has never met, known simply as “The Curator.” The deeper Branch digs into things, the more death and mystery he uncovers surrounding the lives of both Oswald and Jack Ruby. People, who could possibly have provided answers, have met with, often times, strange and untimely deaths; what really happened seems to be something illusive that Branch will never be able to piece together.
DeLillo, in this blogger’s opinion, provokes the reader into contemplating some interesting questions regarding the conspiracy speculation that surrounded the Kennedy assassination from the beginning. What if members of the C.I.A., who were outraged at the failed mission of the Bay of Pigs, decided to seek revenge? What if there really was, in the initial stages, a plan to shoot at and not hit, President Kennedy, but one member of the group decided to go against the game plan? What if that person not only ignored the main purpose of the operation, but gave false information to the loosest cannon of the group, who wanted so desperately to be someone of importance in this world? What if it wasn’t just one person, but all of the conspirators that felt a real assassination, as opposed to a fake one, would be more effective in brining about the sort of change they were seeking? DeLillo doesn’t come right out and provide what he feels are the answers to those questions. He allows the readers to come to their own determinations, and that makes for interesting analysis, once they have finished reading the book.
“Our culture changed in important ways. And these changes are among the things that go into my work. There’s the shattering randomness of the event, the missing motive, the violence that people not only commit but seem to watch simultaneously from a disinterested distance. Then the uncertainty we feel about the basic facts that surround the case—number of gunmen, number of shots, and so on. Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened. Every revelation about the event seems to produce new levels of secrecy, unexpected links, and I guess this has been part of my work, the clandestine mentality—how ordinary people spy on themselves, how the power centers operate and manipulate…”