Archive for April, 2014


April 13, 2014

lhoResponding to the boom in serial killer fiction, the criminologist Elliott Leyton objected to the romanticisation or glamourising of serial killers, in the Hannibal Lecter novels and elsewhere:

[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”.)

In 2003 Hitchens surveyed the remains of the empire:

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.

Requiem for a Character

April 11, 2014

At some point in my childhood, I was led into a room in a school with a middle aged woman behind a desk. It was some kind of interview, for secondary school, I don’t remember, I was around ten or eleven at this time.

What I do remember is the woman asking me: ‘What’s your birthday?’

‘November 17,’ I said.

The woman produced a book. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘let’s find out what Adrian Mole did on your birthday.’

That icebreaker was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Sue Townsend’s death. We all knew Adrian Mole. We had grown up with him. I read the teenage diaries as a kid, of course I did, but it’s the adult novels I loved most, because childhood in the main follows a set path, whereas once you’ve grown up, anything can happen.

Not that much happens in the Mole diaries. As teenagers Adrian and his girlfriend Pandora are snobs in the way that only teenage outsiders can be. But Pandora grows up to be an Oxford PhD, Member of Parliament and bon viveur, while Adrian lives a life of poverty and disappointment. He racks up debt, two failed marriages, spends years raising children alone on a sink estate and, in the final book, develops prostate cancer. The books are well loved despite this darkness. Or perhaps because of it. Townsend has Chekhov’s chip of ice. Life is hard. Bad things happen. Dreams dissolve like morning mist.

My favourite of the Mole books is The Wilderness Years. In this, it’s the early 1990s and Adrian is a young man squatting in Pandora’s Oxford boxroom. Over the course of the book, he gets fired, dumped, moves cities, all the while writing a ludicrous novel, Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, featuring Adrian’s fantasy surrogate and wish-fulfilment icon, Jake Westmorland. Jake’s adventures become a book within a book as Adrian excerpts his work in progress alongside his regular diary. The Mole novel is preposterous (‘Put your foot down!’ Jake barked to the minicab driver. ‘Take me to the nearest urban conurbation’) but develops a poignant edge as Adrian’s fiction mirrors his moods and charts his growth as a person. We laugh at Adrian, but never stop loving him. He has no talent but is in his own way a wonderful human being.

There are probably millions of Adrian Mole type intellectuals in provincial towns and cities all over the UK – reading in old man’s pubs, working the counter at secondhand bookshops, raising pigs in the fields of England.

This post is meant as my tribute to these fine men.


 Sue Townsend 1946-2014. Image via The Daily Edge