Wednesday, 3 July 2013


This review of Norman Mailer's Oswald's Tale first appeared in the Spectator, 2 September 1995. I dug it out when I was writing my script for my Open Book essay on the literature of the JFK assassination, which I will also post here in its original form sometime after tomorrow's repeat broadcast of Open Book. What follows is slightly different from the published review-- I've made a correction, incorporated some of the ideas from my original draft, and added one or two small points--but it is substantially the same. I was tempted to go off on a tangent, comparing the Kennedys of An American Dream and Oswald's Tale, or the Kennedy of the former with Oswald himself, but that's really a whole separate essay! And I do wish that Mailer had been able to fulfill his promise at the end of Harlot's Ghost: 'to be continued'. And yes, the Henry Wade who was Dallas DA (and denied knowing Jack Ruby, which was easily disproved) is the same DA who was the defendant in Roe vs Wade).


If Marina Oswald had let her husband Lee make love to her on the evening of 21 November 1963, John Kennedy might still be alive. This is the major conclusion one can draw from Norman Mailer's 800-page excursion into the life and mind of the world's best-known alleged assassin.

Americans have always been keener on myth than reality, and few American writers have had a sharper grasp of American myth than Mailer. His forte has been taking real people and focusing his intellect and his instincts on what it is that turns them mythic. He has done this both in fiction (with JFK himself in An American Dream) and non-fiction (Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, and, most tellingly, Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song). In many of these cases, it is death itself which confirms iconic status; this is true of John Kennedy and it should be true of Oswald as well. Certainly Mailer would like it to be.

The problem is that Oswald is no Gary Gilmore, and in trying to move him into iconic territory Mailer forgets his own instincts for American myth. A 'lone crazed assassin' might play better for his purposes, but reality has stacked the deck against such an interpretation of Oswald, not least because as a lone assassin he is so mundane. Instead, it is Oswald the patsy, and the JFK conspiracy, that has reached the level of myth.

In 1970, we might have welcomed Mailer's excursion into the conspiratorial quicksands of the assassination. Today, an increasingly prolix Mailer ignores the very lessons of deception he provided just four years ago in his own CIA epic, Harlot's Ghost, and seems content to tie some extensive research together with some dubious sources in a loose bow that comes undone almost instantly.

The new material in Oswald's Tale, much of it assembled by Lawrence Schiller, is an exhaustive combination of interviews conducted in Moscow and Minsk, along with transcripts of the KGB's bugging of Oswald and Marina's flat. Those looking for new insight into the mind and character of Oswald will be sorely disappointed—as will those looking for photographs. There is a good deal of repetition, and at times Mailer seems keener, or at least content, to reveal the character of life in the old Soviet Union, not for any insight it may throw on Oswald or his motives, but just for the chance to apply his metaphoric skills to another country. Certainly the new republic of Belarus may have welcomed that. But after all the information has been disseminated, the picture of Oswald still has huge questions, and Mailer's answers leave huge holes.

One might expect those holes to be filled once Oswald returns to the USA, but it is here the book falls apart. Mailer's two main sources for this period are Priscilla Johnson MacMillan's Marina and Lee and Gerald Posner's Case Closed (Posner's book itself draws heavily on the former). This is akin to using Mein Kampf as your primary source for a book about the Holocaust.

The best that can be said about Marina and Lee is that government agents sequestered Marina Oswald, who feared deportation, AND granted MacMillan exclusive access to her. Like others handed exclusives, she delivered what those granting the favour desired: a portrait of a lone crazed assassin in the making. It was not her first encounter with Oswald; in Moscow she had interviewed the putative defector; she has admitted to at least being debriefed by the CIA when she returned to Boston, though not to having discussed Oswald at all. Marina Oswald's story changed over the years, depending on who she was talking to. Mailer's interpretation of Marina's various testimonies is a keystone in granting Oswald his killer's status, yet as recently as 1993 Marina herself said unequivocally that 'Lee did not do it'.

Posner takes things a step further, by distorting or ignoring the case for conspiracy. Mailer obviously distrusts Case Closed; he has referred to Posner as 'only intermittently reliable', and occasionally he points out some of Posner's more blatant twistings of the record. Amazingly, he still relies on the book as a primary source. By following Posner, Mailer accepts a world full of extraordinary coincidence, in which none of the coincidences are meaningful. Oswald becomes a homicidal Zelig popping up a the right time in the Texas School Book Depository, while the people who shared the stage with him are simply written out of his tale. Posner's book was billed as being definitive on the JFK assassination; really it is a clumsy bit of extended character assassination: if we can convince you Oswald really was a nutter then you'll ignore the evidence and believe he acted alone.

Having journeyed 800 pages trying to build a portrait of Oswald as a singular force in history, Mailer is obliged, like Posner, to ignore the most obvious interpretation of Oswald's seemingly delusional and often contradictory psyche: he was the perfect candidate to be set up as someone's patsy. Mailer's coy dance around the possibility of Oswald's homosexuality lends the word patsy a particular vibrancy. Don De Lillo, in Libra, showed us more behind the shadows of those gay contacts, particularly the bizarre David Ferrie. Oliver Stone was accused, like Jim Garrison before him, of using Clay Shaw's sexuality to help demonise the possible conspirators, even Oswald. But for Mailer, this aspect of Oswald merely hints at why Marina wouldn't put out on that fateful night.

Proving there was a conspiracy requires showing only that a few of the myriad coincidences of Oswald's life are not merely random. Jack Ruby has always been a short-odds entry in that sweepstakes. For example, when Ruby corrected Dallas DA Henry Wade's reference to Oswald's subversive activities' at the Friday night press conference ('that's Fair Play For Cuba Committee') we wonder how Ruby knew the name of Oswald's bogus committee, and why he thought it crucial to set the record straight. Maybe he was just another pathetic attention-seeker, but witnesses also placed him with Oswald in his strip joint, the Carousel Club; in Dealey Plaza that morning; and at Parkland Hospital when JFK died.

The problem is that if just a few facts which suggest a conspiracy are real, then they challenge the hypothesis of Oswald as Norman Bates, as a lone crazed assassin, and Mailer must seek his new Gary Gilmore elsewhere. Oswald's Tale is indeed an American mystery, because Kennedy's death was the product of something more than an unrequited hard-on. That has always been Mailer's territory, but once upon a time Mailer would have been less concerned with solving the mystery, and more concerned with the deeper tale of an American tragedy.

Oswald's Tale: An American Tragedy by Norman Mailer
Little Brown, 1995, £25

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