Oswald's Tale: An American mystery By Norman Mailer, Little, Brown pound;25. - 0 316 87620 8
Throughout his short life, Lee Harvey Oswald was a gun waiting to go off. His father, Robert E Lee Oswald, died two months before Lee was born in 1939, leaving him and his brother under the dubious protection of his wife, Marguerite. Marguerite subsequently took up a number of awful jobs and even awfuller men, moved repeatedly from state to state, and, when she couldn't afford to keep her sons with her, installed them for safe-keeping in a series of orphanages, juvenile prisons and military schools. Lee slept with his mother until he was almost 11; then spent the rest of his life trying to get as far away from her as possible.
It was Oswald's one prevailing passion to journey away from the country he knew. Growing up poor and poorly-educated, he was cursed with enough intelligence to know he wanted more than he already had, which meant that wherever he went became the next place he needed to leave. Remembered by fellow classmates and social workers as a "non-participant," Oswald spent most of his young life alone in his room, rereading his brother's Marine Corps manual and dreaming about guns.
As soon as he turned 17 he joined the Marines to put his good dreaming to use; but the work was too hard, so he spent most of his time avoiding it. He preferred to lecture fellow soldiers about the joys of communism, even though he'd never gotten around to actually studying either Marx or Lenin. Dishonourably discharged barely a year after enlistment, Oswald took his savings and fled to Moscow, where he turned in his passport at the American Embassy and applied for Soviet citizenship. When citizenship was denied, Oswald slit his wrists; when the Soviet government reconsidered and citizenship was approved, Oswald began planning his return to America.
"I am beginning a new life and I don't want any part of the old," Oswald wrote his family from Moscow, and it's a line that would make him a fitting epitaph. Leaving it all behind was the only sort of progress Oswald knew how to accomplish, so he was forever saying goodbye for good. When he brought his Russian wife, Marina, back to New Orleans in 1962, he was already planning another defection, this time to Cuba. And when he made his last, fatal departure from his home on November 22 1963, he left $170 for his wife on the bureau, and his wedding ring in a cup. This time, Oswald wasn't around long enough to turn back.
Oswald never belonged, and by the end of his life he didn't want to. Like the copycat celebricides who came along since, from Mark David Chapman (the assassin of Lennon) to John Hinckley Jr (the putative assassin of Reagan), Oswald only believed in one person, and that was himself.
Norman Mailer makes many excuses for writing another book about Oswald, but by the time you reach the end of this pointlessly long, egomaniacally lazy and poorly-written "mystery", it's hard to believe he was after anything except the bucks. "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," Mailer writes, in one of his few aimless stabs at a thesis. "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." Mailer is arguing that by seeking the "real" Oswald, he is attempting to analyze the veracity of a nation. Like Oswald himself, though, Mailer likes tossing off big ideas, but never gets down to the hard work of developing them.
The vast bulk of Oswald's Tale is nothing but exposition lifted from other books - The Warren Commission Report, Epstein's Legends, Macmillan's Marina and Lee, and so on. And because Mailer can't be bothered to summarise, nothing is ever gleaned. The only original scholarship lies in the book's first 300 pages, which contain not only numerous personal accounts of Oswald and Marina's acquaintances in Minsk, but KGB reports on Oswald's activities as an aspiring Communist and factory worker (again: Oswald liked the idea, but didn't like the job). These opening pages offer some fascinating glimpses of Soviet life after the war, but rarely provide any insight into what Oswald was all about.
Mailer would rather copy out an entire page from a KGB report rather than simply say that Oswald walked around a lot in Minsk, visited many shops without buying anything, and often ate dinner alone (Oswald was notoriously tight with a rouble). Mailer will also present a two or three page transcript of a conversation between Oswald and Marina simply to prove that when they were alone they argued about dirty dishes and unwashed socks.
It's not the first time Mailer has preferred bulk to gravity. But it may be the first time he's produced a book as lazy and unprovocative as this one.
Scott Bradfield is assistant professor of American and English literature at the University of Connecticut.