Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.