Of course one of America’s best writers was eventually going to tackle America’s most famous, most notorious, most far-reaching moment of the 20th century. Of course he was.
Don DeLillo’s 10th novel Libra, published in 1988, is a hybrid factual/fictionalised reconstruction of the events leading up to the 1963 death of then US President John F. Kennedy. It concentrates on the back stories of the main participants, most notably the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald. DeLillo has said he spent three years writing and researching the novel, extensively drawing on the official, government-sanctioned Warren Commission Report (which he described as “the Oxford English Dictionary of the assassination, and also the Joycean novel”).
Everyone knows the basic story: that JFK was fatally shot while travelling in a motorcade down the streets of Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The gunman, Oswald, was captured later that day, but was himself shot and killed two days later – before he could go to trial – by local nightclub owner, and Kennedy fan, Jack Ruby.
There are three threads to DeLillo’s novel that are gradually, skilfully woven into its cohesive whole. The first traces the life and times of Oswald, a loner, misfit and outsider from the get-go; a classmate considers him “a misplaced martyr (who would) let you think he was just a fool, or exactly the reverse, as long as he knew the truth and you didn’t”. He grew up under a stifling existence with his single mother, who shifted her son from his native New Orleans to Dallas to New York City and back again.
In 1956, aged 17, Oswald joined the Marine Corps, which took him to Japan; a fervent interest in communism led to an attempt to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959. There, he married and fathered a child before returning to the States in 1961, bouncing between Louisiana and Texas before settling on the latter. Early in 1963 Oswald made a failed assassination attempt on Edwin Walker, a retired Major General and noted anti-communist, which did not come to light until after his JFK arrest. An attempt to get to Cuba via Mexico, as a precursor to returning to the Soviet Union, also fell by the wayside; he returned to Dallas in October, in time for the birth of his second daughter, and took up a job at the Texas School Book Depository – from where, on the sixth floor, he would fire off the three shots that would end Kennedy’s life.
The second thread, which is spliced into the retelling of Oswald’s life, starts in April 1963 and involves an array of characters – some real, some not; some involved with the FBI, the CIA, the military forces; some anti-Kennedy, some pro-Fidel Castro – who hatch an elaborate plan to make an attempt on the life of President Kennedy that will, initially, deliberately fail. The plan is set against the backdrop of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and a growing disillusionment with, and suspicions about, Kennedy’s presidency and the true nature of his relationship with the Cuban president. Somewhere along the line it’s decided the impact will be bigger if the miss becomes a hit.
This motley bunch needs a patsy, and Oswald – known to some of them through chance and geography – is it; a puppet on a string who thinks he is in charge of his own destiny, until he realises, too late, that he is just a pawn in a much bigger game. The novel’s title comes from Oswald’s astrological sign, Libra, which is represented by a set of scales; indeed, one character describes Oswald as “a man who harbours contradictions … this boy sitting on the scales, ready to be tilted either way”. Later, in the days preceding the assassination, as the same character is putting the finishing touches on the project, he tells Oswald: “There’s no such thing as coincidence … it happens because you make it happen”.
This theme continues as Jack Ruby’s tragi-comic story – which offers plenty of opportunity for DeLillo to exercise his dry, sly wit – unfolds. It’s one of the highlights in a book chockers with them.
The third thread – the novel’s smallest, but perhaps most pertinent – is set some time in the future and involves a (fictional) retired CIA analyst, Nicholas Branch, who has spent 15 years of his life compiling material for a secret history of the JFK assassination that only will ever be seen by Agency eyes. It is a thankless job and seemingly without end; Branch concludes – even as the documents continue to flood in – that “the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term mainly due to chance. Deft men and fools, ambivalence and fixed will and what the weather was like”.
In a 1988 New York Times interview, DeLillo told fellow writer Anne Tyler: “The novel, working within history, is also outside it, correcting, clearing up, finding balances and rhythms … I don’t know any more than you do what happened in Dealey Plaza that day … Will we ever know the truth? I don’t know.”
I admit I have only a very rudimentary knowledge of the Kennedy assassination, and next to none of Oswald, Ruby, et al. I saw the Oliver Stone’s celluloid conspiracy theory JFK when it came out, but remember very little about it. I probably know more about the Kennedys themselves, the myth of Camelot, the latter generations – a lot of which comes about by osmosis, living in celebrity-obsessed times.
So while Libra certainly does not make me want to run out and devour the Warren Report, it sheds welcome light on the cast of characters surrounding this momentous historical event that, although partly fictionalised, is nonetheless thoroughly, meticulously researched – even while openly wearing its CIA conspiracy theories on its sleeve.
If the Kennedy assassination had never occurred, it could well be a plot in a DeLillo novel regardless. And you should read Libra, whether or not you are interested in the events it portrays. Because, at the end of the day, it’s one cracking helluva good read. That it’s based on actual events is the icing on the very delicious cake.