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The Loser’s Loser

Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery

by Norman Mailer
Random House, 791 pp., $30.00

Lee Harvey Oswald wanted his name to go down in history and he got his wish. Sometimes it seems that before all America knew those five nerdish syllables nothing could go wrong for us, while in the years since Thanksgiving time, 1963, nothing has gone quite right. This may be illusion conditioned by age, but surely there is something to it. Looking back, we seemed then to stand at noon. After the fall of John Kennedy in Dealey Plaza the shadows kept lengthening.

The man who killed Kennedy, apparently alone and unassisted by any conspiracy outside his own mad schemes, was an American type, already somewhat familiar by the early Sixties. In fact he was the mid-century extension of a certain specifically American condition.

It would not be true to say that there is a little Lee Harvey Oswald in all of us. Plenty of Americans have nothing in common with such a person. John and Jacqueline Kennedy might have come from a different planet than Oswald. But there is a little Lee Harvey Oswald in many of us.

In German, there exists a set phrase for the United States: das Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten; it was bandied about by German generals during the Second World War when the first overconfident, undertrained American troops arrived in North Africa. Translated it means “the land of endless possibility.” On a level beyond irony it is a very apt phrase for a certain aspect of American life. Possibility, if you like, is the subject of Edward Hopper’s paintings. It scents the wind that stirs the curtains in that city flat, lurks in the night outside the diner, is drawn in the drag on the cigarette smoked by the thin nude woman beside the window. Intoxicating, tantalizing, always potentially violent, this ineffable quality helps define us.

There are many rootless, open-ended lives in America and many children raised under the shelterless sky of possibility. Lee Harvey Oswald, the principal subject of Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale, was one. Gary Gilmore, Jack Abbott, Jack Kerouac’s old friend Neal Cassady were others. They are not all outlaws but there is an outlaw breed, consisting quite often of extremely intelligent and sensitive individuals. Everyone knows a few examples. They used to abound in the military, to which many turned for order and three squares a day. Autodidacts, Nazis or fascists or Communists-manqués, wiseguys, they lived to shock everyone aboard ship or in barracks with their records of the Red Army chorus and German marches and their copies of The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf. They affected a cool fanaticism and a cosmopolitan sophistication, acquired at the town library and the corner Bijou. They tried to use words they’d only seen in print. When they got out they would start satanic motorcycle gangs or go to Paris to paint or become gigolos.

Or they might be revolutionaries who, upon separation, would be straight off to Russia for instructions. They were often men of indeterminate class or ethnicity. Often they seemed not truly of their native place or region. Hillbillies raised by barmaids in Staten Island. New York boys stranded in the Arizona desert or some level of Florida hell. Booming postwar Texas produced many. They were always angry. Think of the child, Lee Oswald, mocked in a New York public school for his outlandish accent, playing hooky at the Bronx Zoo, dodging the dutiful truant officers of those lost days, already a fantasizing loner.

It seems inevitable that Norman Mailer would do a book about Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. The combination of a violent soul lost in the void of possibility and the assassination with its vast lore of conspiracy in a promiscuous mélange of high and low places is a natural subject for him. He has written and speculated on them before. And as Kerouac was drawn to the basically benign Neal Cassady, so has Mailer been drawn to other, darker, figures of a similar sort, like Gilmore, Abbott, and Oswald. The Executioner’s Song, his 1979 book about Gilmore, the Utah multiple murderer, is an American classic. It is a book so beautiful and wise that its light somehow illuminates the rest of his work and legitimates his vision.

Mailer is fierce, courageous, and reckless and nearly everything he writes has sections of headlong brilliance, although the quality of his work has been uneven. Some of it has seemed paranoid or obsessive and obscure, partaking of a logic that was always writerly but simply did not play in daylight. Often it went over the top. But after The Executioner’s Song it became impossible to deny his stature. In this book, he made all of us, regardless of class or origin, see tragedy in the life and death of a murderous jack-Mormon thug from the gulches of the West. In Gary Gilmore, another road child, a product of brutal possibility and an utterly superfluous man, Mailer led us to recognize a son and brother.

We ought not to fault Oswald’s Tale for not being the second coming of The Executioner’s Song. All writers are hostage to the expectations their best work creates. This book is far less ambitious and relies in far greater measure on verbatim interviews and matters of record. It also serves a lesser subject. Gary Gilmore did seem to burn with a terrible flame. There was an intelligence and dark excellence about the man that made him even more frightening while it lifted his condition to the level of tragedy. If anyone ever represented the thing itself, unaccommodated man gone wild and turned killer, it was Gilmore, which is what attracted Mailer in the first place, and inspired him. Lee Harvey Oswald was no Gary Gilmore. He lacked the majesty and the uncompromising malice. Above all he lacked the style. This is an unfair and amoral assessment of two murderers, but it’s inescapably relevant when we consider a book. Intrigues and mysteries notwithstanding, Oswald was a lesser figure in dramatic terms.

Lee Harvey Oswald, as he appears in Oswald’s Tale, was a loser’s loser whose chance of fame would always be proportional to his willingness to self-destruct. He would never prove a lover or a hero; his options were only shades of villainy, something which he naturally failed to understand. In the Marine Corps, he was just another one of those mouthy sea lawyers full of pseudo-intellectual yammer about their far-out politics, one of the revolutionaries who would go to Russia when they got out. The difference between Oswald and the rest was that he actually went. And then, instead of skulking home when his money ran out, he insisted on staying, even to the point of making a superficial suicidal gesture when he was asked to leave. He was determined to achieve the status of “defector.” This was a man whose only gift was the wit to compound his mistakes exponentially. A man to turn a personal fuck-up into a national disaster and make his problems everybody’s.

Oswald’s Tale often shows Mailer at his best, which means that reading it has many rewards. Mailer and his associate Larry Schiller were able to obtain a large amount of KGB material, including tapes from the bugged apartment in Minsk where Oswald lived and where he began his life with Marina. This was probably facilitated by the fact that Minsk, Oswald’s Soviet residence, fell to the independent state of Belarus after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the local authorities acquired the KGB’s records. Using them and interviews he recorded with various people who knew Oswald during his period in Moscow and Minsk, Mailer provides a vivid sense of life in the former Soviet Union circa 1960. If it was not nasty, brutish, and short, it was certainly cheerless and dull.

This narrative is about as sympathetic to Oswald as anything published. Marguerite Oswald, the neurotic, narcissistic woman who raised him in her image, makes several memorable appearances. Oswald’s dyslexia is discussed, and the degree to which that disorder can trap an intelligent person in the appearance of incoherency and deeply embitter him. Mailer throughout argues convincingly for Oswald’s intelligence, in spite of the man’s subliterate journals and correspondence.

The recorded accounts, balanced by the author’s novelistic style, make it impossible not to feel sorry for this very young man—barely twenty—with his spite and naiveté and childish pride, adrift in the utterly foreign, Orwellian landscape of post-Stalinist Russia. Even an intelligent paranoid like Oswald could scarcely have imagined the degree of official scrutiny to which he was subject during this period. Suspecting a CIA plant, the KGB followed him relentlessly, analyzed tapes of his recorded conversations, received regular reports from informers among his associates, and even drilled a peephole commanding a view of his apartment from an adjoining flat to supplement the bug already installed. Eventually this gave them insight, not to say oversight, into the honeymoon period of Oswald’s marriage.

Meanwhile, Oswald did his best to look at the bright side, kept up his journal, and took an assigned job at the Minsk radio factory, where his performance was lackadaisical enough to cause negative comment. A lonely, fatherless mama’s boy, he searched for a nurturing woman and came up with Marina, who, according to interviews quoted by Mailer, may or may not have been a one-time Leningrad hooker but who was definitely a canny soul and tough cookie in search of security and respectability. For that, Lee was hardly her man but her survival skills would be drawn upon severely. In being sympathetic to Lee, Oswald’s Tale is also sympathetic to Marina and presents her side of the story. For Marina’s version of events, Mailer uses interviews with Marina taped during the 1970s by Larry Schiller and also Priscilla McMillan’s book Marina and Lee.

The ex-Soviet dimension provides almost all the new information in the book, giving us a sense of how young Oswald looked to Russians, official and unofficial. It’s also the most entertaining. Mailer has found a way to make the dry bones of KGB tapes and his own interviews stand up and perform. His Englishing of the Russian originals is extremely lucid; the picture of Soviet life provided by the recorded material and his observations is particularly lively and convincing. Characters come across with extraordinary vividness and some are memorable.

The old Soviet Union was very much a land of euphemism, circumlocution, and terrified discretion, and in the wake of the assassination just about anyone who set eyes on Oswald was questioned. In the course of its own investigation, the KGB still had time to straighten out such hooliganism as incorrect reading habits on the part of Oswald’s acquaintances when it came to their attention. One Golovachev, a fellow factory worker of Oswald’s, apparently already in trouble over his friendly correspondence with Marina Oswald in Dallas, is discovered in passing to have read Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, then on the index of forbidden books. The KGB record of his interrogation states:

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