Monday, 8 July 2013


Last week my essay on the literature of the JFK assassination was broadcast on Open Book. It's still available on IPlayer here (about nine minutes in).Because of time limitations, portions of the essay we recorded had to be edited out, so what follows is the original script; what we intended to cram into six or seven minutes.

The bits that are gone are mainly toward the end--the establishing of Oswald as a patsy and, most sadly, the brilliant JFK And The Unspeakable, which not only makes the case for conspiracy, but places that conspiracy firmly into an ongoing context. You can read my original review of that book, written for the magazine Lobster, here.

Still, it's wonderful to be able to get ahead of the inevitable deluge that will engulf the 50th anniversary come November, and Open Book is, as always, a great listen...


Everybody remembers. I was in eighth grade art class when Mrs Hugins was called away. She came back to tell us President Kennedy had been shot and we were being sent home. Two days later I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Oswald dead. It was all open and shut.

So it seemed to this boy of 12. JFK's Camelot of a White House had been struck down by a Communist defector misfit. A year later, the Warren Commission endorsed that simple explanation, but instead of calming the nation, it raised more questions than it answered. The Warren Report spawned a minefield of debate and disinformation, which has spawned more than a thousand books. By the time I turned 16, it was open and shut no longer.

The best of the first wave wear their reaction in their titles: Mark Lane's Rush To Judgement, Harold Weisberg's Whitewash, and Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After The Fact which catalogues the evidence buried within the Report's 26 volume appendix. The early fictions, meanwhile, approached Kennedy's murder metaphorically: Thomas Pynchon's Crying Of Lot 49, Loren Singer's Parallax View, and Winter Kills, by Richard Condon (author of the Manchurian Candidate) where the president's assassination is ordered by his mob-connected father.

Stephen King's recent novel 11-22-63 is a throwback, dismissing doubters of the official verdict as those who can't accept Kennedy's death as an act of random absurdity. In his novel, a Maine school-teacher goes back in time to stop Oswald. It's a good time-travel story, powerfully imagining the butterfly effect of Kennedy's survival; much of King's work has always been revisiting a more innocent time. His picture of Oswald as lone crazed assassin fits his sense of American innocence betrayed.
He still had that prissy little smile on his face when he walked up to me. Arrogant and prissy, both at the same time. He's wearing that smile in just about every photograph anyone tried to take of him....basically, there's nothing more to see anyway. Just a skinny little wife-abuser waiting to be famous.
But in the was almost certainly Oswald. You've heard of Occam's Razor, haven't you? ...'all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.'
- (reading from 11-22-63)

The collapse of trust in government in the Seventies wake of the Watergate scandal, saw a House of Representatives investigation conclude the likelihood of a Kennedy conspiracy, but also a reluctance to blame anyone but the Mafia. The derailing of the committee is detailed in Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation. British journalist Anthony Summers' Conspiracy, first published in 1980, became the crucial one-volume summary, but the real steps forward belonged to the two best Kennedy novels. Charles McCarry's Tears Of Autumn got him labelled the American John LeCarre,while Don DeLillo's Libra shows a typically obsessive DeLillo protagonist endlessly researching the ultimately unknowable.

Think of two parallel lines...One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny.
-(reading from Libra)
The third wave of JFK literature was sparked by the 1991 release of Oliver Stone's movie JFK—whose JFK: The Book Of The Film is itself worth reading. The establishment response was Gerald Posner's ballyhooed Case Closed, a prosecutor's selective brief against Oswald and for the Warren Report. Norman Mailer called Posner only intermittently reliable, but used him as the basis for Oswald's Tale, in which Lee's unhappy marriage to the Russian beauty Marina saw him shoot Kennedy in a fit of jealous envy. More telling was James Ellroy, who claims America's innocence disappeared on the first boats over, and said the 'real trinity of Camelot was look good, kick ass, get laid'. No idealist, his conspiracy, laid out in The Cold Six Thousand oozes with sleazy reality.

He got the basic stats: One suspect caught—a kid-- a sheep-dipped leftist. Guy Bannister dipped him. The kid killed a cop. Two cops were sent to kill him. Phase two went bad. The second cop botched his assignment.
Littell holstered up. Littell studied his ID....
The streets were dead. The windows zipped by. Ten thousand TVs glowed.
It was HIS show.
He developed the plan. Pete Bondurant helped. Carlos okayed it and went with Guy Bannister's crew. Guy embellished HIS plan. Guy revised it. Guy botched it. …
Littell counted windows. All tint-distorted. Smudges and blurs. His thoughts blew wide. His thoughts cohered:
Talk to Pete. Kill Oswald. Ensure a one-shooter consensus.
- (reading from The Cold Six Thousand)

The portrait of Oswald we get from Warren, Posner, Mailer, and King actually shows most convincingly that he was uniquely qualified to become someone's perfect patsy. Ray and Mary LaFontaine, in Oswald Talked, made a convincing case for Oswald as a failed government informer, ripe for the set-up. And in 2008, James Douglass' JFK and the Unspeakable put forward the strongest case yet for a conspiracy, including detailing an earlier, eerily similar plot derailed only by the President's cancelling a trip to Chicago. After nearly 50 years, Douglass showed there were still new approaches, with echoes right up to the present.

The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, it is ourselves. Our citizen denial provides the grounds for the government's 'plausible deniability' avoiding our responsibility for the escalating crimes of state done for our security, we who failed to confront the unspeakable opened the door to JFK's assassination and its coverup.
- (reading from JFK And The Unspeakable)

The problem is believers in conspiracy assume the burden of proof, not just to find who really did pull the trigger on Kennedy, which would be impossible now, but for every other conspiracy as well, whether the Royal Family are really lizards from space or Elvis is still alive. As the generation which remembers the event begins to die off, newer, more immediate plots may push Kennedy into history's background. Meanwhile Oswald's ghost remains a permanent patsy, there to persuade us violence and history really are random, beyond our control. Which is why as Don DeLillo, reminds us...

The valuable work of theorists has shown us the dark possibilities, prodded us to admit to ourselves the difficult truth of the matter. No simple solution, no respite from mystery and chronic suspicion. Conspiracy is now the true faith.
- (reading from De Lillo's 1983 essay 'American Blood: A Journey through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK')

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