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Imagining the Kennedy Assassination : LIBRA: by Don DeLillo (Viking: $19.95; 448 pp.)

July 31, 1988|RICHARD EDER

Like Conrad, Don DeLillo writes of political conspiracy as a disease. It is not the same disease. In Conrad, it infects the dissidents who seek violently to overturn a system. In DeLillo, it is the system that conspires and gets sick.

Besides, Conrad's disease was deadly and relatively straightforward; pneumonia or tuberculosis. With DeLillo, our contemporary, it is deadly, elusive and polymorphous. Lupus, say, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, with its connotation of Third World miseries striking back through First World practices.

"Libra," a novel about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is built upon the particular practice of "deniability." From that administrative virus, invented to dissolve the constrictions of the old rule that "who wills the end, wills the means," DeLillo cultivates a moral and political pandemic.

Although the author seems to be averse to the term, "Libra" is a form of fictionalized history. It has some of the form's disadvantages, which I will get to, and the strengths, as well. In the hands of a writer of DeLillo's fierceness and subtlety, the strengths are supercharged.

It has an additional advantage, owing to its subject. We have no solidly accepted factual history of Kennedy's killing, though we have an infinity of facts. One of the best things in "Libra," and one of its central symbols, is the wryly drawn figure of a man hired by the CIA to write the "secret history" of the assassination.

We glimpse him, from time to time, deluged with detail--photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald's pubic hair, of his mother's dental charts, of goat skulls smashed by bullets to demonstrate possible trajectories--and ever further from anything approximating a truth. Truth is a Penelope's web whose completion is eternally postponed, not because it is undone, but because it is blurred by continually arriving skeins of new thread.

Using real figures, and others more or less invented to fill out his plot, DeLillo chooses and elaborates one frequently suggested version of the conspiracy theory. Simply put, the killing of Kennedy is the work of assorted anti-Castro activists who, by disguising it as a Cuban-backed effort, hope to provoke an American response more concerted and effective than the Bay of Pigs venture.

That is putting it simply, and DeLillo does not. The plot is at least two plots, piggybacking upon each other. Those involved include some dissident middle-level CIA officials heavily involved in the Bay of Pigs, and unable to accept the subsequent U.S. toning-down of the anti-Castro campaign, right-wing mercenaries, armed Cuban exiles, a former New Orleans police official, a Mafia overlord aiming to control gambling in a post-Castro Havana, and assorted odds and ends.

The oddest of these is Oswald, who comes drifting through in his balloon of self-exultation and misapprehension, intersects the various plots, and fits in perfectly with all of them. He is a nebulous leftist, a vociferous admirer of Castro, and has spent several years in the Soviet Union in protest against his own unprivileged portion of the American way of life.

Having, in his peregrinations, brushed up against several different intelligence agencies--the CIA, the FBI and the KGB--it is not hard to devise a confected paper trail linking him to the Cubans. As for enlisting this unstable man, who rather admires Kennedy, it is enough to convince him that the U.S. government is making plans to assassinate Castro.

DeLillo disassembles his plots with the finest of jigsaw cuts, scrambles their order and has us reassemble them. As the assorted characters go about their missions, we discern them more by intuition than by perception. The chronology goes back and forth, disorienting us. We do not so much follow what is going on as infiltrate it.

The author has constructed the shifting segments of a conspiracy that changes shape as it goes along. The original notion, devised by a disaffected CIA man on extended leave for excessive zeal, would have had the assassin miss. An associate, directly in charge of the operation, as he was at the Bay of Pigs--and therefore more bitter about the "betrayal"--simply switches the arrangements.

DeLillo's paranoid grid is much larger. The operatives may be "renegade" CIA men, but the agency has its own contacts with an armed exile group that is also planning a Kennedy assassination. At the same time, the FBI is working to frustrate the exiles' activities.

At one extraordinary point, an FBI man approaches Oswald to infiltrate the right-wing group that is involved in the assassination. A leftist, he is to pretend to be a rightist and to offer to pose as a pro-Castro activist in order to furnish the rightist group with information on the left. The real purpose, of course, is to report the rightists' activities to the FBI. It is a masterpiece of stunning dislocation, and in the middle of it, the FBI man apologetically declines a cup of coffee because J. Edgar Hoover is on an anti-stimulants kick.

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