Picks and Pans Review: Libra

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Don DeLillo

Among the achievements of this novel about Lee Harvey Oswald is that DeLillo, against all odds, maintains a nerve-wracking tension. There's never any question about what is going to happen, of course, but the book sustains a passionate curiosity that asks not only "How could Oswald have shot Kennedy?" but "How can people do things like this?" Mixing real events with extrapolations and wholly fictional characters, DeLillo—author of White Noise and other novels—creates a conspiratorial scenario. CIA operatives, a Mafia leader and anti-Castro Cubans, outraged about the Bay of Pigs, set out to stage a near-miss assassination that will be blamed on Cuba, using Oswald as a stooge. One reason things get so far out of hand is that Oswald—in DeLillo's reconstruction of his life—is unpredictable and paranoid. Often the novel seems less devoted to the events of 1963 than to general considerations of the mind's ability to turn itself into a hopeless tangle of facts, memories, fears and hopes. Most of all, it is about the allure, the addictive power of secrecy. "Secrets," says one of the CIA veterans, "are an exalted state, almost a dream state. They're a way of arresting motion, stopping the world so we can see ourselves in it." DeLillo draws his characters with striking clarity. Oswald's mother, Marguerite, becomes a defensive, bitter woman who insists her son's childhood was normal: "I am not the looming mother of a boy's bad dreams." One of the invented personalities, a businessman-spy-double agent, is described as "a study in divided loyalties or in the irrelevance of loyalty." Another man, a gay former airline pilot who has turned into a soldier of fortune, is asked his age: "Forty-five. Perfect astronaut age. I'm the dark scary side of John Glenn. Great health except for the cancer eating at my brain." Oswald himself thinks at one point: "Men in small rooms, in isolation. A cell is the basic state. They put you in a room and lock the door. So simple it's a form of genius. This is the final size of all the forces around you. Eight by fifteen." From paragraph to paragraph, DeLillo changes perspective and jumps back and forth in time; the constant disorientation may be intentional, but it's still annoying, DeLillo also writes about the actual assassination in the sparest terms. At a time that seems vital in understanding Oswald, DeLillo seems intent on only barely sketching the assassin's reactions. Even if, as he pulls the trigger, his mind is registering just the immediate physical sensation of the act, a reader wants to know more about the way Oswald experiences the moment. Only afterward, in his cell in Dallas, does Oswald think: "He will have motives to analyze, the whole rich question of truth and guilt. Time to reflect, time to turn this thing in his mind. Here is a crime that clearly yields material for deep interpretation." That lapse creates a flat spot. It doesn't, however, prevent the novel from making a powerful impact. The human capacity for casual ruthlessness could hardly be explored in a more frightening way. (Viking. $19.95)

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