Shadow of a hitman

Who was Lee Harvey Oswald? Norman Mailer gets under the skin of America's most famous assassin. By Hugo Barnacle; Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery by Norman Mailer Little, Brown, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
A few years ago Norman Mailer led a successful campaign for the release of a convicted killer who promptly went and killed again, so some people might be wary of his judgment in matters criminal; but the approach of his new book, as he points out, "is not legal, technical or evidentiary but novelistic - that is, we are trying to understand Oswald". The Oswald in question is Lee Harvey Oswald, the century's most famous assassin, of whom this is not so much a biography as what the Russians call "materials for the biography of", namely a collection of documents, interviews and quotations, linked by Mailer's own interpretative meditations into a plausible new perspective - the idea being that "the sudden death of a man as large in his possibilities as John Fitzgerald Kennedy is more tolerable if we can perceive his killer as tragic rather than absurd."

Mailer concedes, "It is still possible to believe that Oswald was simply an overambitious yet much henpecked husband, with an unbalanced psyche, a vein of brutality towards his wife, and that was the sad sum of him." But this solitary, inner drama may have more meaning than all the dreary machinations of tax-dodging Sicilian businessmen and renegade spies familiar to connoisseurs of Kennedy conspiracy theory.

You get an inkling that there might be more to Lee Oswald (who was not particularly given to using his middle name) than meets the eye if you ever come across a picture of his Russian wife, Marina. Sadly Mailer's book is not illustrated. Oswald was a ferrety, dorky-looking individual. A notably incriminating photo of him posing with his gun has often been called a fake because the head sits so oddly on the body. But Oswald really did look like that.

Marina, on the other hand, was a striking beauty. Back then she looked not a little like Julie Christie, who was soon to be acclaimed the most beautiful woman on earth. (The resemblance is less clear now, but Marina has had a harder life than Julie, and smokes four packs a day to boot.)

It is the old question of "How did he manage to get her?" In a sense it was easy, because Oswald was the only American in Minsk in 1961, and thus automatically a glamorous catch. In another sense it took some doing: for an ex-Marine of only 21 to migrate to Russia alone, cashless, with the scantest notion of the language, would be a bold move at any time, let alone then, and shows a certain singularity of character.

Mailer devotes the first half of the book to the stay in Minsk, mostly because that's where his new material comes in. Working with Lawrence Schiller, he has interviewed Marina, her family and friends, Oswald's former workmates at the Horizon radio factory, and the KGB officers assigned to keep tabs on this peculiar defector from day one.

The tabs certainly got kept. Oswald was followed everywhere, every day. The watchers noted everyone he met and every bus fare he skipped paying. Once he married Marina they put a bug in his flat. So when the interviewers ask her now, "Would he ever complain about the floors?" and she says, "I don't remember," we at once get the tape transcript for August 1961, time 18.24, when she yells, "I suppose you want me to wash floors every day?" and Oswald yells back, "Yes, wash these floors every day!" and the argument rages for pages. (Oswald was a mama's boy, fussy about how housework was done. Mailer, typically, keeps wondering if he was gay.) It is deeply eerie to eavesdrop on the rowing and making-up of a pair of newly-weds over 30 years ago.

But the watchers and listeners could find nothing fishy about Oswald. He never took any spy-bait that was offered, like a peek at experimental radios or a chance to go rambling near secret military bases, and the KGB got very bored with him. Their worst-case scenario, when he returned disillusioned to Texas in 1962 dragging along a reluctant Marina and a new baby, was that he might have been "sent over to study living conditions" and gather mundane information that the CIA could use in background briefings for real agents.

It is harder to follow his movements in America. Mailer relies mainly on the testimony of various witnesses interviewed by the Warren Commission, because even Marina saw little of her husband once their relationship deteriorated. She stayed with friends, he moved from one rented room to another as he took and lost a succession of lowly jobs in Dallas, then New Orleans, and finally Dallas again.

The CIA probably did have their hooks into him by now, and the FBI as well. The oil-prospector and CIA stringer George de Mohrenschildt got to know him, and this looks like an informal debrief. Several FBI men hung around, and one was seen to pass Oswald a white envelope as they sat in a parked car. It could have been the FBI's idea to have Oswald found a one-man branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New Orleans. Hoover's men had a scheme - "Cointelpro" - for planting provocateurs in the American left. In fact most of the American left consisted of FBI provocateurs.

The bad news for conspiracy theorists is that, even if the spooks thought Oswald was working for them, in his own mind he seems to have been working for himself, using the government men simply for cash and an ego-boost. Even in the Marines he never took orders: his exasperated officers recall that they always had to ask him nicely or he acted deaf. He did not have the makings of a hired gun, or a useful patsy. He was his own man.

Mailer convincingly portrays him as a mediocre intellectual of grand ambition, and his private writings, quoted at length, bear it out. His ego was the size of Versailles but he lived in a single shabby room. Why shoot the President? "It was the largest opportunity he had ever been offered." But it was most likely chance, not some shady cabal, that did the offering.

The novelty in Mailer's version is that, though the Mob may not have killed the President, they could well have pressured Jack Ruby to kill Oswald. The two Mafia dons usually implicated, Trafficante and Marcello, wanted $3.5m from the Teamsters' pension fund to build an hotel in New Orleans. According to Trafficante's lawyer, they hoped to convince the Teamsters' boss, whom the Kennedys were hammering, that they had fixed the assassination for his benefit.

This is rather by the way. The meat of the book is the remarkable feat of imaginative sympathy which enables Mailer to engage with Oswald, and with his "long and determined dream of political triumph, wifely approbation, and high destiny". In the end, the story does seem, just, more tragic than absurd.