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The Loser’s Loser

In answer to a question about how Doctor Zhivago had attracted his attention, GOLOVACHEV explained that he had wanted to familiarize himself with this book purely out of curiosity, in order to have some idea about that work. It was explained to GOLOVACHEV that it was a conclusion of prominent Soviet literary critics, writers, and other persons who had familiarized themselves with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago that it contained slanders of Soviet reality and was not of artistic value. Therefore, GOLOVACHEV’s acquaintance with the book Doctor Zhivago would not enrich his knowledge but, to the contrary, would lead him to have false notions about particular issues.

Is there deliberate irony in such declarations? Probably not, except to the extent that all communication between the secret police and the Soviet citizenry was part of an ongoing ironic dialogue.

Fortunately, perhaps, for Golovachev, his mother was present with maternal strictures to appease “the Organs.”

MRS. GOLOVACHEV,” the record goes on to state, “sharply criticized GOLOVACHEV’s desire to read Doctor Zhivago, noting that no decent person would waste his time on such a book.”

The same hapless Golovachev then has the disastrous notion of writing Marina a letter of condolence after the assassination and Oswald’s own killing by Jack Ruby. His letter gets no further than the Minsk post office and it’s no more Mister Nice Guy down at the KGB.

They let him sit in a chair. They were very polite; they didn’t beat him…. He was sitting in a room with a big table, and there were a lot of officers and bodyguards around, maybe seven people.

They started by telling him: “In our country, only representatives of the people can send sympathies. You are not a representative of our people. You have no right to express sympathy…. If you don’t want somebody to write the laws of our country on your back, if you want to see some sky again, then stop doing stupid things.”

They inquire at length into Golovachev’s relationship with Marina.

Why did you write this kind of letter if you didn’t sleep with her? Are you crazy?”

Has the KGB man quoted read Kafka? The Penal Colony perhaps, in which malefactors have their transgressions engraved on their bodies? But Golovachev, as a character, is more Gogol than Kafka.

Describing a pseudonymous Minsk KGB official the author writes:

How Igor Ivanovich Guzmin looked when young would be hard to decide in 1993, because his presence spoke of what he was now—a retired general from KGB Counterintelligence, a big man and old, with a red complexion and a large face that could have belonged to an Irish police chief in New York, impressive from his sharp nose up, with pale blue eyes ready to blaze with rectitude, but he looked corrupt from the mouth down—he kept a spare tire around his chin, a bloated police chief’s neck.

That description is vintage Mailer, but it’s not until the book shifts its focus to the Texas killing ground that Oswald’s Tale becomes a work peculiar to Mailer’s concerns. Mailer is one of the few ideologues left in American letters. The development of his ideological system seems very roughly to have progressed from a fairly conventional Marxism in the Forties through a variety of Trotskyism and then, via Wilhelm Reich, into a system that somehow transposed sexual energy into the traditional role of the laboring masses as an engine of liberation. Sex, rather than class, is key.

Not surprisingly, then, he searches like a haruspex through various sexual clues scattered in the available material. One such, a rather haunting one, turns up back in Minsk and has to do with Lee and Marina.

Neither Igor [the KGB man described above] nor Stepan [a second agent] would admit to more than some early concern about Lee and Marina. When that romance developed quickly into marriage, it could be said, Igor admitted, that they did lose some sleep, and felt somewhat at fault that no steps had been taken to keep this courtship of Oswald and Marina Prusakova from flourishing.

When asked what such steps might have entailed, Igor’s response was deliberative, even delicate. There were girls, he suggested, some of them attractive certainly, certainly, who at one stage or another could be called upon by the Organs. Perhaps one of them might have diverted Oswald. They also could have attracted Marina perhaps to some other person, some very attractive man qualified for such activity. They didn’t do that, however.

Since the KGB men are nowhere represented as telling the whole truth, this discreet evocation of “the Organs’ ” powers of sexual manipulation is enough to give anyone pause, the more so because Marina herself, when we take account of her Leningrad experiences and background, sounds a bit like such an attractive person. Was she put somehow in Oswald’s path? But Mailer does not suggest that, nor is there any evidence for it.

Tracing Oswald’s short life, the book examines the possibility of his homosexuality, a factor that might, if present, explain some of his history and connections. As a teen-ager he was a member of a unit of the Civil Air Patrol, a vaguely paramilitary scout movement whose New Orleans chapter was supervised by one David Ferrie, a known seducer of young boys later dismissed by the CAP for that reason. Ferrie had connections to various figures in New Orleans lowlife and gumshoe circles, such as the Carlos Marcello Mafia outfit and the private eye Guy Banister, who loom large in assassination conspiracy theory. However, as Mailer says, there is no evidence of any sexual relations between Oswald and Ferrie during Oswald’s adolescence and no evidence that they ever met in later life. Mailer also speculates on possible homosexual experiences Oswald may have had in the Marine Corps, even to the point of imagining Oswald’s shooting a fellow Marine in the act of fellatio. This scenario suggests a strong, grim scene from an unwritten Mailer novel, but it’s left undeveloped as fiction and not seriously proposed as fact.

Sometimes the sexual line of inquiry is baffling and touches the occult. At one point Oswald’s Tale describes Marina “with her deep if unfocused intuitions about magical matters” living in Dallas squalor with a small baby, having had six teeth extracted and feeling guilty about the car accident in which a local Russian acquaintance was injured. She’s sleeping late mornings, earning the disapproval of the Oswald’s small, generally unsympathetic circle of Russian acquaintances, and Mailer imagines his way into her condition.

There was a series of obsessions to encounter each night, including the bottomless question—“What do I do next with my existence?”

Paradoxically, her sexual life may have been stimulated. Curses that prove successful open the gates to libido. (Otherwise there would be no warlocks.)

This mystical formulation is not elaborated upon at any point, and for a moment a reader may wonder whether he’s reading about Lee and Marina or Parsifal and Kundry. However, Mailer is quite scrupulous in distinguishing between the sections in which he has allowed his novelist’s speculation free rein and those in which he is examining the established evidence.

This scrupulousness holds throughout, and his weighing of the facts seems to lead Mailer to the conclusion, if I read correctly, that Oswald did indeed act alone in assassinating Kennedy. He also insists that the CIA contacted Oswald upon his return from Russia and considered using him somehow. The argument offered, turning on the existence of some unlikely friendships, is strong.

Oswald’s curious relationship with the veteran intriguer George De Mohrenschildt will always fascinate conspiracy buffs. Did De Mohrenschildt really go to Yale with Rudy Vallee? Apparently. Is this relevant to the Kennedy assassination? God knows, because the career of De Mohrenschildt, an oil engineer and White Russian petty nobleman who be-friended the Oswalds in Dallas, is replete with odd significances that vanish furiously in all directions. As a young man he had been acquainted with Jacqueline Bouvier. He was said to have been employed by the intelligence services of five countries, all of whom suspected him of double or triple dealing.

From one point of view, it makes no sense that he would befriend impoverished and undereducated losers like the Oswalds. From another, it seems logical that as a bored Russian adventurer stranded in Godforsaken Dallas, Texas, and the self-appointed leader of the minuscule Russian community there, De Mohrenschildt might be curious about them. He almost certainly had connections with the CIA, whatever these may have been. As a secret agent, his untrustworthiness and garrulousness were world-renowned. Years later he commited suicide during a period when he was being interviewed about the assassination. Unfortunately for history he was not only an ambiguous figure but often certifiably insane. (His antic presence is one of those which will make the buffs and bet-settlers who read Oswald’s Tale weep tears of frustration over the book’s lack of index.)

Each time Mailer extends the line of conspiracy, it’s within the special sphere he has reserved for novelistic imagining. Again and again he spins out conspiracy scenarios which, like a good novelist, he makes psychologically convincing but which he presents without evidence or even much conviction. Rendering the factual record, almost in contrast, he seems to abandon the exotic possibilities with regret.

Searching for purpose in the life and death of Oswald early on in the book, Mailer writes:

It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd. So the question reduces itself to some degree: If we should decide that Oswald killed Kennedy by himself, let us at least try to comprehend whether he was an assassin with a vision or a killer without one.

Many pages later, Mailer returns to the moral intention underlying his book and the motive behind his continual sifting of unproven and unprovable theories of conspiracy: “It is possible,” he writes,

that the working hypothesis has become more important to the author than trying to discover the truth. For if Oswald remains intact as an important if dark protagonist, one has served a purpose: The burden of a prodigious American obsession has been lessened, and the air cleared of an historic scourge—absurdity. So long as Oswald is a petty figure, a lone twisted pathetic killer who happened to be in a position to kill a potentially great President, then, as has been argued earlier in this work, America is cursed with an absurdity. There was no logic to the event and no sense of balance in the universe. Historical absurdity (like the war in Vietnam) breeds social disease.

Given the yeast-like propensities of conspiracy to expand and expand as one looks to buttress each explanation, it can hardly be difficult for the reader to understand,” Mailer continues, “why it is more agreeable to keep to one’s developing concept of Oswald as a protagonist, a man to whom, grudgingly, we must give a bit of stature when we take into account the modesty of his origins. That, to repeat, can provide us with a sense of the tragic rather than of the absurd. If a figure as large as Kennedy is cheated abruptly of his life, we feel better, inexplicably better, if his killer is also not without size. Then, to some degree, we can also mourn the loss of possibility in the man who did the deed. Tragedy is vastly preferable to absurdity.”

From the American master conjurer of dark and swirling purpose, this is a moving reflection. It is as though Mailer, a major celebrator of the heroic mode, the heir of Hemingway in life and art who added the mystique of sexuality to the older traditions of stoicism and courage, has found the world a lesser place than he had hoped. The slain Prince, the all-powerful Mafia, the ultra-diabolical CIA, the armed fanatic, all those figures whose shadows have informed our history and his work, seem suddenly reduced from the vast form they took in the vision he now reluctantly surrenders. It is as though American possibility has somehow failed him.

The fact is that, in the land of endless possibility, absurdity and common death gape far wider beneath us than high conspiracy, tragedy, or sacrifice.

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