[U]sually without intellectual or physical attainments, they are often uneducated and virtually illiterate… in sum, they are dull, unimaginative, socially defective, vengeful, self-absorbed and self-pitying human beings. In fact, there is no connection whatever between what serial murderers are really like and the way they are portrayed in films and books.
This remark kept recurring in my head when I read Don DeLillo’s Libra and, more recently, Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale. Two masterful American novelists tackled possibly the most famous American murder of the last century and still didn’t manage to make its perpetrator sound the least bit interesting. Mailer’s book is the more in depth, follows Lee Harvey Oswald to Russia and back and delves into his background, childhood, marriage and family. Nothing emerges. Nothing except the same petty traits. Oswald’s laziness (he was chided by Soviet workmates for putting his feet up on the factory table) his indecisiveness, his semiliterate pomposity, his attitudes to women (he beat his wife, the key sin of the inadequate male). A stale permanent atmosphere of stained mattresses, stencilled flybills and squalling children hangs over this man. There’s nothing in LHO you wouldn’t find in unpleasant people on buses or in offices everywhere. Only this one whacked a President. That, Mailer says, is the mystery. For:
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.
Hence the conspiracy theories. The best and most convincing is the story in Libra, where Oswald is manoeuvred by hawkish elements of the CIA, who want to create the impression of a Cuban plot against JFK where Oswald is meant to miss the President, and terrify his administration into a harder line on Castro. Mailer counters that no professional conspirator is going to build a scheme with LHO as its centre: ‘it is too difficult, no matter how one searches for a viable scenario, to believe that others could have chosen him to be the rifleman of a conspiracy. Other amateurs, conceivably. But not professionals. Who would trust him to hit the target?’ And: ‘It is even more difficult to organise the aftermath of a planned failure than to do the deed and escape.’
Another mystery is the why. But killers demand attention, and confuse fame with notoriety. Anders Brievik wrote a manifesto 1,518 pages long. Oswald too was a lifelong pamphleteer and political flyerer. Mailer theorises that LHO banked on using a public trial as his world platform. The electric chair or life without parole would be worth the exposure. Oswald didn’t realise that he himself would be killed before he reached the podium.
Not assimilable to reason. The craziness of democracy. You can take a shot at the president if you don’t agree with him. And what an embarrassment for Kennedy’s shade. Taken out by the bloke from Sparks. Assassinated by Mr Pooter. But as Oswald’s act made him bigger than he was, so too with JFK. A blueblood fratboy, exploiter and mediocre president, he lives on in the Camelot myth. Christopher Hitchens devoted much of his writing on US politics to fighting that myth and exposing the sense of giggling entitlement that characterised the Kennedy dynasty (the telling anecdote for me is the Gore Vidal story that Hitchens cites, about how ‘Jack and Bobby used to argue over which of them had first thought to call James Baldwin ‘Martin Luther Queen”.)
Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, whose ability to find his way to the House unaided has long been a source of intermittent wonder, became inflamed while making a speech at a liberal fund-raising event and yelled, ‘I don’t need Bush’s tax cut! I have never worked a fucking day in my life.’ The electoral career of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, which had never achieved escape velocity from local Maryland politics, seemed to undergo a final eclipse in the last mid-term vote. Robert F. Kennedy Jr failed to convince anyone of the innocence of his cousin Michael Skakel, convicted of beating a teenage girlfriend to death with a golf club.
Americans might as well erect an Arcadia around the Roger Sterling family.
Hitchens adds: ‘This is not to say that hair and nails do not continue to sprout on the corpse.’ In 2011 Stephen King published 22/11/63, his counterfactual time travel book about the Kennedy assassination. King buys into the Kennedy cult entirely, calling him ‘the last gunslinger’. What Roland Deschain would have made of the man who took us into Vietnam is never explained.
In 22/11/63 King sends a high school teacher protagonist, Jake Epping, back half a century to put a stop to Oswald’s plans. This could at least have been an interesting ride with Epping following Oswald around Texas and New Orleans of the America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But King’s tragedy is that he’s so good at writing about small communities, and has perfected that canvas so well, that he’s not comfortable with anything bigger. Epping arrives in Dallas and walks down the main street in the evening. He sees a drunk man thrown out of a bar and shoot himself on the street. The vision so unnerves Epping that he leaves the city and spends most of the novel hiding out in a small town.
King’s always been my hero. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing to find that heroes too sometimes scuttle back into their comfort zones.