Oswald's ghost

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.

"There was so much evidence that was contradictory I was certain I could have gotten Oswald off," Mailer tells the crowd. "But I told this to an FBI agent, and he said, 'Not in Dallas.'"

When Mailer began writing Oswald's Tale a few years back, he set out to uncover "the smoking gun"--the one piece of evidence that would either clear Oswald or condemn him; he had heard the conspiracy theories but likely did not want to believe them--again, because it is more tolerable, as he writes, to accept the murder of Kennedy ("a man...large in his possibilities") if we "perceive his killer as tragic rather than absurd."

"I decided that the virtue here was to understand Lee Harvey Oswald and not to come up with a smoking gun," Mailer says in an interview at the Adolphus Hotel, walking distance from the Dallas Police headquarters garage where Jack Ruby silenced Oswald's tale forever. "If I had come up with a smoking gun, I might have been saying the opposite." He smiles. "A writer isn't any more honorable than a banker.

"After a while you realize it's hopeless. Too much has gone by. You need resources to come up with a smoking gun. If there's a smoking gun, it's probably buried in the files."

When the author came up dry, he instead decided to write a book about Oswald, to make solid this ghost who has, for three decades, haunted this country. He began to treat Oswald as though he were a fictional protagonist in a novel, "like Anna Karenina or Jake Barnes."

Beginning in Moscow and in Minsk for six months, Mailer and Schiller traced the lives of Oswald and Marina in astonishing detail, having been granted access to KGB files never before unsealed. Mailer and Schiller interviewed KGB agents, friends, co-workers of Oswald's at a Minsk radio factory, family members--none of whom had ever spoken about Lee, their memories pure and preserved because they were untouched after all these years. Those recollections, along with transcripts of electronic surveillance kept on the Oswalds when they lived in Minsk, helped the author to paint a portrait of the assassin that's slightly, almost imperceptibly out-of-focus.

"Oswald in Minsk with Marina" consumes the first 340 pages of the 791-page book (followed by the more familiar "Oswald in America," drawn heavily from Warren Commission testimony, Priscilla Johnson McMillan's 1977 book Marina and Lee, and other oft-heard sources) and tells a little-known tale of a squirrely young American with only sketchy knowledge about Marxism and Communism who sought to renounce his American citizenship, only to later fight successfully to return to his homeland. It tells of his suicide attempt (using his own words, taken from his detailed "Historic Diary") when his request for Soviet citizenship was rejected, of his courtship of Marina, of the abuse he would heap upon a beautiful wife who thought her American husband was so smart and so classy and so much better than the Russian boys who often courted her.

"Well, why are you crying?" Oswald is overheard asking Marina in one KGB transcript (July 21, 1961). "I told you crying wouldn't do any good. You know, I never said that I was a very good person."

"Why did I get married?" Marina screams. "You tricked me."
Such details of Oswald's brutish behavior toward Marina are only small answers to the larger questions: who was Lee Harvey Oswald really? And why did he kill John F. Kennedy? Mailer portrays Lee as an ambitious loser with dreams of grandeur, as a half-brilliant and half-mad shlub, as a tenacious pest; he portrays him as a man who wanted to wield great power, but who was ultimately powerless--until the very end. At the end of the book, Mailer suggests that had Theodore Dreiser not chosen An American Tragedy as a title, then it would have been the title of his own book.

"Oswald is tragic in a way of human nature often being tragic," he explains, "because often what we want is impossible to obtain, but nonetheless there's a certain blindness of spirit together with enormous ambition. A huge effort goes into trying to carry out that task that will never be possible. In his case, he wanted to be a great political leader, he just didn't have the tools.

"He was dyslexic. He did not have the charm you need, the charisma, to be a political leader. He didn't have the work habits. He lacked a hundred things that someone like a Lenin had or Castro had or Hitler had or Mao had. But he didn't know he didn't possess these abilities.

"He believed from striving he could arrive at this high place and finally, by the time recognition was coming closer and closer to him, I think he finally decided the only promise he could ever attain was through an extraordinary act."

Throughout the Russian half of the book, Mailer stays out of the narrative, telling the story in a flat, though hypnotic, tone. Only when he begins recounting the more familiar tales of Oswald's days in New Orleans working for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, of his assassination attempt on Dallas' General Edwin A. Walker several months before Kennedy's death, of his days spent in Oak Cliff and in Irving, does Mailer interject himself into the proceedings. "I like the idea of taking the reader behind the scenes to the extent you say, "Look, I don't know it all, we really have to explore this together,'" Mailer says. "I find in most nonfiction, you're just being given the second stomach of the cow."

At Borders, Mailer had begun answering an audience member by saying, "Knowing him..."--that is, knowing Oswald. The phrase contains the sort of intimacy one might use when speaking of a friend. Knowing him. Sitting in his hotel room, Mailer says that yes, he does know Oswald now. But by no means does he completely understand the man--a brave admission for a writer who often attempts to get inside Oswald's head, to explain why he was driven to some sort of long-lasting fame and power, why he thought of himself as a true hero.

"I don't know that I understand Oswald. I think I understand him to a degree, but I know him better. I spent all that time on him and had all these witnesses talking about what he would do, there's a sense of...of...how can I put it?...there's a great sense of what he's going to do next in small matters. But that doesn't mean I comprehend him profoundly.


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