Oswald's ghost

Norman Mailer resurrects a tragically human assassin

Norman Mailer stands behind the lectern, leaning against it as he addresses the 150 or so who have come to hear the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner speak. He wears a blue blazer, an argyle sweater vest, and gray slacks; his tousled white head of hair barely peeks above the lectern.

He has come to Borders Books and Music in Preston Royal to promote his 28th novel, Oswald's Tale--a book subtitled "An American Mystery," one that uncovers in exquisite and excruciating detail the life, and the mind, of America's most infamous murderer and Dallas' most haunting nightmare.

Mailer--himself a man of great infamy, renowned as much for his days as America's greatest brawling New Journalist, for his arrogance and brilliance, as for his two Pulitzer Prizes--takes a few moments to address the crowd before he cracks open his book and reads a few pages. He explains Oswald's Tale is a work of extensive research, with most of the writing "done in the interviews" with the dozens of people with whom Oswald came in contact during his days in Russia (1959-1963), in the Marines, in New Orleans, and in Dallas.

When he begins to read, it is a rather dry affair, the words spilling from Mailer's mouth in that dry and gruff Brooklyn blurt, sometimes tripping over each other on their way out. But the words themselves, not their recitation, provide the passion of their source--Marina Oswald, in this case, the widow of the world's most famous "ghost," in Mailer's parlance. Mailer reads from a section near the end of the gargantuan book, from a chapter titled "The Widow's Elegy."

"First, Jacqueline Kennedy was a widow, and then Marina," Mailer reads. "As the second widow, she can no longer know what it is she knows."

Mailer, who had spent five days with investigator and partner Lawrence Schiller interviewing Marina, recounts in compassionate detail the pain and horror the woman still endures every day; she recalls the days spent with Lee Harvey, Mailer writes, not with self-pity but "to lessen stress" because "she feels she is choking." Sometimes the images of recollection are clouded and obscured by other memories; sometimes, they are hazy because she has thought too often of the past, told so many stories that one becomes another.

"If we go through Lee's character," she tells Mailer and Mailer tells the crowd, "I myself would like to find out: who is he? Was he really that mean of a person?--which I think he was--but it's a hard road for me to take because I do not want to understand him. I have to tell you in advance that, as far as Lee is concerned--I don't like him. I'm mad at him. Very mad at him, yes."

Later, in an interview with the Observer, Mailer will say that Lee and Marina, though they fought constantly, with Lee often slapping his wife, were not ill-suited to one another. Rather, he explains, they were "half in love"--perhaps the worst way to live, he shrugs.

"We don't realize how tragic marriages are when people are half in love," Mailer, a man who has been married six times, will say later. "It's almost one of the worst human conditions to be in because there's so much back and forth, so much waste, so much stunting and blunting of possibilities."

As he finishes his reading, he takes a few minutes of questions from the audience, imploring them to speak loudly ("because I'm slightly deaf") and speak quickly so he can sign books before he has to leave promptly at 8:30. "The questions can be as rude as you want," he advises. "I don't care."

One man asks the author whether writing such long books prolongs his life; another asks if he considers Oswald's Tale to be the sequel to his 1991 opus Harlot's Ghost, his 1,300-plus-page pseudothriller about the CIA (he says no). Someone else wonders whether Dallas figures prominently into the book.

"Not much," he replies. "There's almost no description of place in the book. I don't particularly like Dallas." He then hastens to tack on, "Architecturally speaking." Marina, he adds, also does not much care for the city because she was always unsure whether it was being built up or down, all the vacant lots next to all the giant buildings.

One elderly man comments that he was present at an American Civil Liberties Union meeting Oswald attended. A former FBI special agent, Woody Specht--who handled the Kennedy assassination case file from the mid-'70s through 1984, when he wrote a memo declaring the case closed--stands to read a note he sent to Mailer. Specht declares the tome, which he has only scanned, a "national service."

But what the crowd really wants to know is whether Mailer believes Oswald acted alone in the assassination of President John Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The murder of Kennedy, says one woman, is still a demon that "haunts" this city, and like the author himself, she wants to believe the assassination was the tragic act of one man, not some grand conspiracy.

Mailer refers to Kennedy's death and its aftermath as a "dead bruise on the national psyche," and he acknowledges that Oswald "was perfectly capable of doing it by himself"--a fact he reiterates throughout the end of Oswald's Tale, though sometimes he hedges his bets.

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