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Open File : Was Oswald's shot luck, conspiracy, fate or fiction? : OSWALD'S TALE: An American Mystery, By Norman Mailer (Random House: $30; 848 pp.)

June 04, 1995|D. M. Thomas | D.M. Thomas is a British novelist. His novels include "Flying Into Love," about the Kennedy assassination, and most recently "Eating Pavlova."

The mystery of John F. Kennedy's assassination belongs to the world of quantum physics, in which nothing is as it seems or even as it is. Paradox is at its heart. Einstein had faith in the relativity theory because the mathematics was so simple; Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli, debating a proposed quantum law before a Danish audience, had an opposite criterion: Bohr interrupting Pauli with the cry, "It's not crazy enough--it can't be right!" Pauli retorting, "It is crazy enough!" The problem with the assassination likewise is that any credible solution has to be both crazy and simple.

The simple explanation is that Lee Harvey Oswald was a screwed-up narcissist drawn to violence; by sheer coincidence he was working, in November, 1963, in a building overlooking a presidential motorcade route. More than that, it was the one spot where a tight corner would force the motorcade to slow almost to a halt. The coincidence gave Oswald his one shot at fame--and he took it. Norman Mailer in his gigantic study of Oswald comes close to endorsing this simple explanation; and it has undeniable force. Following an unusual visit to his family the night before the killing, Oswald left money for them, together with his wedding ring. He took to work a long package, which we can assume was his Italian rifle. He had previously tried to shoot the right-wing Gen. Edwin A. Walker. There is no clear-cut evidence that he was mixing either with government intelligence or with Mafia people; generally he was a loner.

But then the inconsistencies pile in. Hunting in Minsk, he couldn't hit a rabbit from a few feet away. Expert marksmen, post-Dallas, found his rifle-sight badly adjusted; firing without pressure, they could barely emulate his deadly accuracy. What of the crowds certain the shots came from the grassy knoll? (Mailer's book must be unique in that he does not mention the grassy knoll.) What of the "magic bullet"? The initial Parkland doctors' verdict that the front wound was an entry-wound? The autopsy sketches, so inaccurate they surely had to be part of a cover-up? The suicides and suspicious deaths, of David Ferrie and George De Mohrenschildt when they had been summoned to give evidence? Jack Ruby's Mafia-esque shooting of Oswald, and his desperate plea to Judge Warren to move him to Washington where he could tell the truth? Taking account of these factors and a host of others, we conclude that the simple explanation is crazy.

On the other hand, if we build an edifice of conspiracy capable of holding all the uncomfortable crazy details, we find it liable to tumble down because some very simple facts won't fit in. For example--to take one that bothers Mailer whenever he is drawn to the persuasive conclusion that Oswald was silenced: Why was Ruby wasting time sending money to a female employee, when at any moment Oswald might be moved out of his reach? The crazy explanations are not simple enough; they seem to demand a perfect functioning of intricate movements, which take no account of crass accident. America could not get a few helicopters to Iran to attempt a hostage rescue without a breakdown; yet a network of conspirators killed Kennedy, corrupted the medical and legal investigations and buried the truth, without a hitch.

So we go back to attempting to find a truth simple enough for Einstein, crazy enough for Pauli, and we find . . . the 1995 Norman Mailer model of Oswald; a man with enough dignity to be in the Shakespearean mold that Mailer wants: "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." It makes a difference to us, Mailer asserts, whether an act of murder is "visionless and mindless or is a cry of wrath that rises from a skewed heart maddened by its own vision of injustice."

Certainly the Oswald who emerges from Mailer's long and sometimes rambling exploration is an interesting and complex man. Partly by correcting his dyslexic misspellings, Mailer makes a good case for his having been almost "a young intellectual." Considering his poor school-record he wrote in a good polemical style. Most unusually for a dyslexic, he was a copious reader. In one summer week in 1963 he borrowed from the public library Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," William Manchester's biography of the president, Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," Alexander Werth's "Russia Under Khrushchev" and, for light relief, "Hornblower and the Hotspur." It strikes this reader as a very congenial, humanist selection, and it's hard to imagine that particular borrower blowing the President's brains out, a few months later.

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