Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review: Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery by Norman Mailer



“Mailer, after all, was the sort of author who could both dazzle and infuriate, often within the space of a single paragraph. He was a major talent who could not keep himself from reminding you that he was a major talent, an astute observer of his moment, who tended to operate as if that moment were entirely his.”

David L. Ulin, LA Times Staff Writer


The trouble with reading books by Norman Mailer is there is too much of Norman in them. Such a dominating character in American literary art, to read him is to sense he is trying to dominate the reader as well. To “dazzle and infuriate” as David Ulin says above. His foray into the mysterious nature and ways of Lee Oswald in his Oswald’s Tale is a prime example of that. There are some new tidbits scattered about and his foray into Russia seeking new information regarding Oswald’s time there which is informative, but Mailer is sticking to the script. The Lone Gunman is staying alone. Much of the book features Warren Commission interview transcripts and abundant sections of written work by other authors (largely, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, interviewer of Oswald in Moscow in 1959 and Marina Oswald’s biographer and also, a known CIA dabbler which is never admitted to in this book.) Occasionally, Mailer throws in tasty little morsels of his own to consider.

Mailer back in the day, was a conspiracy believer and then at some point decided the evidence did not merit that view and joined up with the Lone Nut purists where he stayed during his final days. That influence can seen throughout the book. Mailer takes a conventional view of the life of Lee Oswald, though he seems fascinated with forays into his personal habits, idiosyncrasies and sex life. Ironic that Mailer explores Oswald’s sexual habits in detail while ignoring more celebrated topics, such as, was he an intelligence agent as his mother claimed? There are so many controversies here that Mailer never addresses as if he doesn’t want to dirty his hands with the thing.

How Mailer Deals With Controversy
Mailer resorts to the same parsing of selective evidence as Posner, Bugliosi, and a host of other Warren Report defenders do. That of course, comes as no surprise.

A case in point his how his handles Oswald’s street scuffle with DRE member Carlos Bringuier while handling out pamphlets for the pro-Castro FPCC which has Oswald arrested, provides him local media time and establishes his persona as a communist in the public’s eye.

But along the way something odd happens that lets us know there is more here than meets the eye. Because Oswald mails a letter to the FPCC headquarters in New York vaguely describing the altercation. The trouble is, it was postmarked before the scuffle took place. This one little thing casts doubt on this street tussle being a spontaneous affair and implies it was a preplanned event. In CIA parlance, Oswald was being built a Legend. A common procedure of spy-craft.

And how does our great American literary figure handle this? Mailer recruits cabalist traditions and Classical Hebrew, with notions of calling things into being so as to create one’s future. In Mailer’s words, “To say, therefore, that you have done something that you have not yet done becomes the first and essential step in shaping the future.”

Sure, sure. Mailer resorts to metaphysics while missing the obvious–that Oswald mailed the letter too early for what was apparently a contrived event. Earlier, Oswald had approached the DRE to offer his Marine experience to Carlos Bringuier to train them. He offered them a donation as well and was rebuffed on both counts. It should be pointed out here, that the all Cuban DRE was being trained and financed by the CIA. A fact that Mailer never points out to his readers. Evidently, Oswald was on a fishing expedition, doing the labor of a “dangle” for somebody or some agency.

Frankly, I am perplexed as to why he would resort to this. It’s Mailer the novelist speaking here, not Mailer the seeker of the truth. I find it hard to believe that he even has confidence in these words. It is an odd way to brush off the controversy and it just doesn’t work on many levels. For a man so brilliant to revert to this weirdness is absurd but Mailer does so with no shame at all.
I guess when the mind is made up that there can’t be a conspiracy; that Lee Oswald is only lurching from one delusion and flight of fancy to the next, with no greater cause in effect.

KGB Transcripts
While investigation Lee Oswald’s Russian period, Mailer gets access to KGB transcripts taken from bugs that were placed in Oswald and Marina’s apartment. Ample sections of these are reproduced in the book. Basically, I found them not to add much light on Oswald’s character and it all amounts to a lot of bickering between a newly married couple. It’s essentially boring.

However, one item stands out, and it’s another thing Mailer omits–and that is what language are they speaking in? While it is known that Oswald was an excellent Russian speaker, it is also known that during his time in Russia he didn’t show off that skill that much. He apparently did upon meeting Marina, who thought at first he was a local as he spoke with a Baltic accent. But when socializing with the Ziger family, they report he never spoke Russian in front of them, only in English to their father who understood English. Fearing being arrested for being spy, which he most likely was, Oswald never wanted this skill to be known to those who were listening in on him. It would denote a swift arrest for espionage.

Conversely, his wife Marina was apparently a very good English speaker but spoke little of it when she emigrated over to the United States. John Armstrong in his book, Harvey and Lee, states that he saw Marina’s handwritten notebooks in the National Archives and they were all in English. Lee wrote Marina letters in English to her while living in Russia and those are in evidence. Even mother Marguerite reveals in her Commission testimony detailed conversations she had with her daughter in law–conversations in English, without anyone to render in Russian. Yet Marina needs a translator to give her sworn testimony to the Warren Commission in 1964. What is going on here? Evidently, she was under similar pressures in America as Lee was in Russia. Which of course, would fashion her an operative as well. At any rate, both were in a Cold War contest to not reveal too much of who they are and what they know to the Big Players.

And all of this interesting stuff Mailer ignores to create his vision of Lee Oswald as Walter Mitty, with his visions of greatness, constantly encountering dead ends, seeing his destiny smothered before his eyes. The other Oswald, the one that was a shadow warrior for the Home Team, which would explain a lot of his mysterious undertakings, has no place in the narrative, Mailer’s narrative.

The Pay Off
So when the smoke clears we’ve got our lone gunman solely responsible for the act and it’s time to move along. It’s all a sad dream anyway. As I was reading this work, I kept getting the feeling that Mailer would rather have jotted this all down as a novel. After all, he considered the novel to be the apex of literary art, and art he had a gift for. He at times uses the same devices one does in fiction writing and those devices seem out of place, like when invents the metaphysical reason for Oswald’s forecast of a scuffle in a letter before the event happens to work his way out of that mess. This is what a fiction writer does–gives his character some luck out of nowhere to extract himself from a crisis. When Mailer doesn’t wish to deal with something troublesome, he ignores it. At times he seems set on exposing a deep truth and then veers off of it as it if the whole scene got too hot. Towards the end he refers to Lee Oswald as a ghost; the First Ghost he says. As if there are not hundreds of other ghosts haunting the American historical landscape. Once again, a metaphor better suited in fiction.

Oswald’s Tale takes off like it’s going to be an interesting, groundbreaking book, but that never happens as it fades into the same old thing for those of us familiar with the Oswald story. There are lots of fields left fallow, as Mailer never wants to deal with any of the major controversies in the case. After all, that might muddy up the nice, clean story being presented. Even at this late stage in JFK assassination research, by hundreds of researchers, Mailer still thinks the men selected to be a part of the commission were honorable and above reproach. You can still think that so long as your ignore their histories as Mailer does. Like many of his ilk, the Warren Report stands as the final authority on what happened and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the last official government investigation conducted in the late 1970s, which concluded in its report there was a probable conspiracy, is given no consideration at all.

Oswald’s Tale is really the same account of Lee Oswald’s life the Warren Report told us, just with better prose.