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From the Grassy Knoll

Libra

by Don DeLillo
Viking, 456 pp., $19.95

Though he is yet to write a work as prodigious as Gravity’s Rainbow or as sensational as An American Dream, Don DeLillo has, with nine novels to his credit, supplanted both Pynchon and Mailer as chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction. Beginning as a fantasist, he has moved stealthily toward realism while retaining a dark and at times prophetic vision of occult conspiracies and correspondences and technology-gone-mad. As far back as 1977 he “foretold,” in the cinematic novel Running Dog, the development of lawless outgrowths of the intelligence community—covert organizations that cancerously infiltrate the tissues of the body politic, breaking down the boundaries between governmental policy and private enterprise, amassing wealth or dealing out death with impunity. The weapons-obsessed leader of the organization called PAC-ORD in that novel will suggest the arms dealer Edwin Wilson to some readers, General Secord to others. Death becomes a cultish preoccupation in Running Dog, and in DeLillo’s subsequent novels, The Names and White Noise, it is presented as the central object of worship in a shrine festooned with the trappings of Nazism, pornography, and international terrorism, and humming with a myriad electronic devices. The ultimate cataclysm, whether toxic or nuclear, is not far off.

In Libra DeLillo turns back a quarter-century to the double event that fixed death most intimately in the collective consciousness of America: the assassination of John Kennedy and the incessant replay, on TV, of the murder of his assassin. Lee Harvey Oswald’s death was also the event that gave rise to the most feverish outburst of conspiracy speculation in American history, far exceeding that following the death of Lincoln. In this exceptionally interesting novel, which uses real names and repeatedly anchors itself in recorded fact, DeLillo imaginatively traces the lines of force converging to produce those echoing shots that “broke the back of the American century.”

In a note at the end, DeLillo insists that Libra (the title refers to the astrological sign under which Lee Harvey Oswald was born) is a work of imagination that aspires “to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I’ve altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters.” DeLillo has, then, written a historical novel that ideally one should be able to approach as one does Ivanhoe or I, Claudius—with a degree of aesthetic detachment and without excessive concern for historicity so long as the “feel” of the period is communicated and blatant anachronisms are avoided. But here, the events narrated are too recent, too awful, too raw. Readers over thirty-five will remember not only the major events narrated but their own reactions and thoughts concerning them. Some will want to compare DeLillo’s fictional account with the other countless published speculations, and that way madness lies, as well as contamination of the critical process.

For those who have followed different conspiracy theories of the assassination I will only say that Libra does not maintain that the Lee Harvey Oswald who defected to Russia was replaced by a second Lee Harvey Oswald who fired at the President. It does assume a second assassin (a Cuban exile) who was firing from the “grassy knoll”; and the portraits of Lee Oswald, his bewildered Russian wife, Marina, and his egregious mother, Marguerite, are in substantial (though not total) agreement with those drawn by Priscilla Johnson McMillan, Jean Stafford, Robert Oswald (Lee’s brother), and by Edward Jay Epstein in his several books on the subject. It also assumes Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald is linked to Ruby’s indebtedness to the New Orleans Mafia, which is in turn linked to the Kennedy assassination plot. DeLillo makes extensive (though selective) use of the now thoroughly discredited charges by the demagogic district attorney of New Orleans, Jim Garrison, connecting Oswald with the bizarre ex-airline pilot David Ferrie, the businessman Clay Shaw, and the homosexual underground of New Orleans.

How does DeLillo go about transmuting such explosive and clearly intractable material into a work of fiction? He begins the novel with an evocation of the brief period in the 1950s when Lee, aged thirteen, and the garrulous and complaining Marguerite Oswald are living unhappily in the Bronx. The dyslexic, lonely, frequently teased boy has already come to the notice of psychiatrists and social workers because of his truancy and other disturbed behavior. His solace is in riding the subways, an experience that reinforces his compensatory dreams of omnipotence:

He was riding just to ride. The noise had a power and a human force. The dark had a power. He stood in front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The view down the tracks was a form of power. It was a secret and a power. The beams picked out secret things. The noise was pitched to a fury he located in the mind, a satisfying wave of rage and pain.

One day, at the foot of the El steps, a woman hands him a Save the Rosenbergs leaflet, which Lee puts in his pocket to save until later.

Libra then leaps forward to the present, and we find ourselves in the fireproof study of a retired senior analyst of the CIA, Nicholas Branch, who has been hired to write the secret history of the Kennedy assassination—a project on which he has already spent fifteen years, with no end in sight. Branch is at times horrified (as no doubt DeLillo must have been) by the sheer weight of the data:

The stacks are everywhere. The legal pads and cassette tapes are everywhere. The books fill tall shelves along three walls and cover the desk, a table and much of the floor. There is a massive file cabinet stuffed with documents so old and densely packed they may be ready to ignite spontaneously. Heat and light. There is no formal system to help him track the material in the room. He uses hand and eye, color and shape and memory, the configuration of suggestive things that link an object to its contents.

As the author’s alter ego, Branch makes only a few appearances in the novel, mainly to discuss the self-reflexive nature of conspiracies and to lament, wearily, the overkill of documentation, much of it of dubious relevance. At the end of the passage I have quoted, he enters a date—April 17, 1963—on his computer, and summons up the first event in the assassination conspiracy.

Three (invented) CIA agents meet in a small Texas town to listen to a plan to undo the disaster of the Bay of Pigs. Two of the agents, Win Everett and Larry Parmenter, are in disgrace with the agency for their overzealous involvement with anti-Castro Cuban exiles after the Bay of Pigs. The third, T.J. Mackey, is described as “a cowboy type to Win’s mind…, a veteran field officer who’d trained exiles in assault weapons and supervised early phases of the landings.” By staging an assassination attempt on President Kennedy with a carefully manufactured trail leading to Fidel Castro, Win Everett believes that they can provoke the United States into a fullscale second invasion of Cuba:

We do the whole thing with paper [says Everett]. Passports, drivers’ licences, address books. Our team of shooters disappears but the police find a trail. Mail-order forms, change-of-address cards, photographs. We script a person or persons out of ordinary pocket litter. Shots ring out, the country is shocked, aroused…. This plan speaks to something deep inside me. It has a powerful logic. I’ve felt it unfolding for weeks, like a dream whose meaning slowly becomes apparent…. It’s the life-insight, the life-secret, and we have to extend it, guard it carefully, right up to the time we have shooters stationed on a rooftop or railroad bridge.”

There was a silence. Then Parmenter said dryly, “We couldn’t hit Castro. So let’s hit Kennedy. I wonder if that’s the hidden motive here.”

But we don’t hit Kennedy. We miss him,” Win said.

Mackey’s assignment is to find a model for the gunman whom Everett plans to create out of ordinary pocket litter. Unfortunately, Mackey, who is more of a “rogue agent” than the others realize, has secret reservations about Everett’s plan for a “surgical miss” of the President and, without telling his two colleagues, sets about planning a real asassination in conjunction with the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami.

DeLillo organizes his complex novel along two separate narrative tracks, each having its own time sequence. One follows the haphazard and dispiriting career of Oswald from his boyhood to his death, lingering over his Marine Corps experiences in Japan and defection to Russia, his return with Marina to Texas, and the confusing period in New Orleans when he was passing out leaflets for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. The other track, which is presented in chapters alternating with Oswald’s story, covers a time span of only eight months. It deals with the progress of the conspiracy and the ways by which Mackey subverts Win Everett’s original plan. When the conspirators hear (by way of the mysterious White Russian émigré George de Mohrenschildt, a “real” person who had befriended Oswald in Dallas) of Oswald’s failed attempt to shoot the right-wing General Edwin Walker, it occurs to them that the young defector may be exactly the man they are looking for. Thus the two tracks are linked, and in the final chapters of Libra the time sequences more or less converge.

The reader of Libra is confronted with two plots of great intricacy that shadow each other: the plot of the novel itself and the plot of the conspirators. DeLillo is a master of dovetailing. Employing rapid shifts of scene and voice, he creates the novelistic equivalent of a Sixties European film by, say, Godard or Antonioni, although without Antonioni’s loose ends. One is dazzled by the virtuosity of Libra‘s construction, by the pungency and ellipses of the dialogue, and by the descriptive brilliance with which the lowlife characters materialize before one’s eyes. The nightclub proprietor Jack Ruby explains himself to a striptease performer in his employ:

You should know my early life, Brenda, which I’m still obsessed. My mother, this is the God-honest truth, I swear to God, she spent thirty years of her life claiming there was a fishbone stuck in her throat. We listened to her constantly. Doctors, clinics, they searched for years with instruments. Finally she had an operation. There was nothing caught in her throat, absolutely, guaranteed. She comes home from the hospital. The fishbone is there.”

Well this is just a woman and a mother.”

So help me, thirty years, my brothers and sisters, never mind. And that’s the least of it. I’m just showing you some idea. My father was the drunk of all time. But I don’t care anymore what they did to each other or to me. I’m not a person who maintains a malice. I feel only love and respect for those people because they suffered in this world. So forget it, I don’t care, go away.”

You never married, Jack, but how come.”

I’m a sloven in my heart.”

Personal-appearance wise, you dress and groom.”

In my heart, Brenda. There’s a chaos that’s enormous.”

David Ferrie is wonderfully evoked:

He had a tendency to wince. He winced all the time in front of mirrors when he pasted on his home-made eyebrows and mohair toupee. Ferrie suffered from a rare and horrific condition that had no cure. His body was one hundred percent bald. It looked like something pulled from the earth, a tuberous stem or fungus esteemed by gourmets. But he wasn’t about to give in, grow despondent, sit in a dark room drinking Tastee Shakes and jerking off. He had some lively interests. A cure for cancer was one interest, almost a lifelong interest…. He was interested in hypnotism and could put people into trances. Flying was a deep and abiding interest. Ferrie had been a senior pilot for Eastern Airlines before his disease made him bald and before his sexual sport with boys became a widely known fact that Eastern officials found disconcerting. He was interested in the communistic menace. Cuba was an interest.

There is a price to be paid for all of this staccato vividness. One hardly has time to become absorbed in a particular episode before there is a sudden cut to a very different, equally spotlit scene. The result is a fragmentation of the reader’s attention and a consequent diffusion of emotion. No doubt this effect is deliberate—one has encountered it before in DeLillo’s fiction, notably in Running Dog. It suggests that the author intends to create a kind of Brechtian alienation, to put a distance between the reader and such highly charged material in order to focus on the more abstract or ideational elements of the case. DeLillo’s preoccupations with secrecy, conspiracy, and death are threaded thematically throughout the novel. “Plots carry their own logic,” thinks Win Everett. “There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death.”

The fragmentation is particularly characteristic of the sections dealing with the conspirators. The Oswald scenes tend to be longer, more leisurely in their pacing, fuller in their detail. Oswald himself occupies much of the novel’s space, and DeLillo handles him almost cautiously, with a minimum of melodrama. The fatherless boy who rages at his overwhelming mother; the alternatively arrogant and defensive loner with his tight little smile; the Marxist autodidact and half-baked ideologue; the inept worker who can’t keep a job; the needy, sometimes loving, often violently abusive husband who tries to keep his wife dependent by refusing to let her learn English; the compulsive liar who litters his trail with odd aliases (“Hidell,” “Hideel,” “Drictal”); the grandiose dreamer with his mail-order weapons—this is the figure made familiar to us by witnesses and biographers, and this is essentially the figure that DeLillo presents to us as his antihero. He is the man who drifts into the toils of conspiracy, who may or may not, as he listens with seeming impassivity to the devilish temptations of Mackey and Ferrie, decide to tip the scales of history. Though DeLillo animates Oswald’s history in a score of handsomely executed small scenes, he never quite manages to extricate him from his life’s record and to launch him as an autonomously functioning and convincing figure in fiction. The Oswald of Libra remains as incoherent as was the Oswald of real life: we learn a lot about him but in the end he is still more a case than a character.

The emptiness at the center is damaging but by no means fatal to DeLillo’s achievement. Libra should be read for the boldness of its enterprise, its unflagging liveliness of surface and pacing, the engaging idiosyncrasy of its style, and, above all, for its vision of an outlaw element in American life devoted to the well-oiled mechanism of sudden death:

After Oswald, [reflects Nicholas Branch] men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.

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